Jonathan Kent’s production of Puccini’s ‘shabby little shocker’ first appeared at the Royal Opera House in 2006, and on its sixth revival the subtle staging happens to combine with some extremely powerful performances to generate an intoxicating, and highly effective, experience.
The production is naturalistic, and when we see how Paul Brown’s sets capture Rome in 1800 we appreciate that no other style would be necessary. By this point the Baroque had been around for roughly two centuries, and manifested it in the gaudy and gargantuan as much as the tasteful and delicate. When we see the graceful curving staircase in Sant’Andrea della Valle alongside the crude and oversized statue that graces Scarpia’s apartment in the Palazzo Farnese, we realise that the city itself provides all of the arresting images one needs.
Act I proves especially effective, presenting the underbelly of the church with the Attavanti chapel lying both behind and below the 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. Cavaradossi’s own painting is bold and brash, but it stands opposite the remains of a medieval Last Judgement fresco that presumably survive from a previous church on the site.
As soon as we see Angelotti knock a candle from the altar when he initially enters the church, and the Sacristan subsequently replace and relight it, we begin to appreciate the functions that the church serves beyond its religious and spiritual ones. It is a place of refuge and hence hope for Angelotti, the area in which Cavaradossi can exercise his artistic skills, and the setting for the celebration of political and military successes in a variety of fashions.
The direction is just as impressive as the sets. The opening to Act III sees soldiers casually going about their business, which actually enhances our own sense of trepidation. The manner in which the soldiers march on to shoot Cavaradossi and then retreat also works brilliantly with the music. It simultaneously captures the routine nature of their business from their own point of view, the fear felt by Tosca despite believing everything will be all right, and our own absolute sense of impending doom. As the curtain falls, three of the plot’s survivors advance on the body of Cavaradossi, emphasising the sickening sense of shame at the death of a ‘hero’ at the hands of Scarpia’s subordinates.
The production itself is complemented by some exceptionally powerful performances that ensure that the thrill of the evening is overwhelmingly visceral. As Cavaradossi the assertive nature of Roberto Alagna’s voice never adversely affects the smoothness, beauty and precision to be found within it. Much the same could be said of Oksana Dyka’s sound as Tosca, with the cleanness in her phrasing also proving highly impressive. Her excellent performance of ‘Vissi d’arte’ conveys both the strength she has had to muster to confront Scarpia at all, and her total fragility in the situation.
Sometimes in the more intimate moments the chemistry between the pair seems a little lacking, as both seem too self-absorbed, but this feels rather appropriate. Tosca may be virtuous but she is also highly demanding, and the fact that Cavaradossi is able to handle her at all may suggest that he has a high opinion of himself as being a match for her. Just occasionally Marco Vratogna could do with increasing his volume as Scarpia, but overall both his tone and presence prove powerful. In the pit, Oleg Caetani demonstrates sharp understanding of the way in which Puccini utilises the different instruments’ sounds to generate atmosphere, and he too plays a large part in ensuring that this Tosca has a mighty punch.
Casts and conductors vary over the run. In particular, Bryn Terfel plays Scarpia on 16, 19 and 26 June, while Plácido Domingo conducts the performances on 16, 19, 21 and 26 June. For full details click here.