Jonathan Kent’s 2006 production of Puccini’s “shabby little shocker” succeeds through a staging that on the surface appears sturdy and safe, while actually containing a lot of detail and commentary within its curved walls.
Act I presents the underbelly of Rome’s Sant’Andrea della Valle, with the Attavanti chapel lying both behind and below the church’s main altar. From the audience’s vantage point the nave and chancel stand above the stage, with marble columns and candles proclaiming beauty and light. In contrast, the lower level gives a ‘behind the scenes’ glimpse of the church, where different artistic and architectural styles vie for attention. There is an ancient sarcophagus and Corinthian capital (upon which the statue of the Madonna stands), and Cavaradossi’s own painting appears opposite the faded remains of a medieval Last Judgement fresco.
It is within this more cluttered area that the church as an institution is shown to be imperfect, which in the context of the Neapolitan occupation derives from its virtual inseparability from police and state. Indeed, during the Te Deum when the choir and crowd sing to the heavens above, Scarpia alone occupies the entire lower level revealing how, in practice, he rules over all three of these domains.
Paul Brown’s set actually places the church at a slight angle to the auditorium, and this asymmetrical trend is continued in Act II when Scarpia’s apartment in the Palazzo Farnese is based around two curves that cross one in front of the other. Interestingly, the only shelves to bear books at all are those that hide the room of torture and even these turn out to be fake. Act III is dominated by a low curved parapet that only runs down one side of the stage and creates a suitably hostile moonlit area.
The standout performance comes from Aleksandrs Antonenko as Cavaradossi; his large, rich and expansive tenor voice feels in a similar mould to Joseph Calleja’s. His performance of ‘E lucevan le stelle’ is intoxicating by virtue of the sheer power and directness of his sound, but his intelligent phrasing really paints a picture of someone remembering a moment of perfection at a time of high crisis. Reprising her role of Tosca from 2008 and 2011, Martina Serafin’s voice is strong and sumptuous, but in Act I the tendency to lay her vibrato on too thickly sometimes makes her sound a little harsh. American Scott Hendricks has all of the right attributes in his baritone voice for the role of Scarpia, but he initially feels underpowered and struggles to make his presence felt in Act I. Nevertheless, far more is right than is wrong with his performance, thus ensuring that this is a highly commendable Royal Opera debut.
Any problems there are with either Hendricks’ or Serafin’s performances are largely overcome by Act II when both get into their stride and the latter gives an overwhelming rendition of ‘Vissi d’arte’. They also paint their thoughts vividly through their interactions, and there are some excellent details such as Tosca’s look of genuine horror at the indignity she is forced to inflict upon herself and the dead Scarpia by rummaging through his corpse to find her passport.
The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House produces a very beautiful and balanced sound, but conductor Daniel Oren is inclined to take the score on the slow side. This is fine from a strict musical perspective, but at the chosen tempo it becomes much harder dramatically to achieve sufficient tension. The consequence is that only moments in, for example, Act II grip us when we really need to be swept along from start to finish. This problem above all others undermines the impact of the performance, although it remains a good one, and by Act III the difficulty is almost wholly overcome.
The Royal Opera House’s Tosca will be relayed live on BP Summer Big Screens around the country on 18 July. For details of venues click here.