One of the most heart-wrenching facts about Tosca is that a singer and painter who are simply going about their daily lives should find themselves thrust into a situation that spirals out of control so quickly that within twenty-four hours they are both dead. Whether we assign the point of no return to Cavaradossi’s initial decision to help Angelotti, or to the moment when Tosca determines to head to the villa, in this tale that takes place across the afternoon, evening and early morning of 17 and 18 June 1800, their fate feels largely sealed before the sun has even gone down.
Jonathan Kent’s 2006 production for the Royal Opera, now enjoying its ninth revival (from Andrew Sinclair) contains 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 bold 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. This positioning also proves clever as it enables his own voice to assert itself over the sound of the masses.
Designer Paul Brown sadly died last year, and this production stands as just one of many testaments to his abilities. His 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. It also stands as an example of just how well the direction works with the sets. The opening sees soldiers casually going about their business, which actually enhances our own sense of trepidation. The manner in which the troops 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 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 their own sickening sense of shame at the fact that all of the giants, the evil ones included, have now passed on.
Adrianne Pieczonka delivers an excellent performance as Tosca, with the razor sharp clarity in her almost ‘metallic’ soprano making her fear and despair feel very real. Her sound is not particularly honeyed, which makes her ‘Vissi d’arte’ just a little less persuasive as her sorrow feels overt rather than reflective or philosophical, but she does act the part well. In her Act I interaction with Cavaradossi she may seem demanding but she introduces just enough humour to show that she knows what she is like, which might normally imply that she has the self-awareness to keep her obsessive traits in check. This makes it all the sadder when we see that she does let her jealousy get the better of her.
As Cavaradossi, Joseph Calleja’s acting does not feel quite as natural in Act I, but there are moments across the evening when he is utterly convincing. When he sings of victory on learning of Napoleon’s success at Marengo one can see both the joy and sense of calculation (he knows he will die irrespective of what he does now) in his taunts. His voice here is expansive and overwhelming, while his rendition of ‘E lucevan le stelle’ in Act III combines power with sensitivity as during this most troubled time he recalls that moment of perfection. Calleja’s acting here also shows how Cavaradossi knows he will not be getting out of the situation alive, although it is more than just his words and expressions that reveal this. When Tosca shows him their passport he throws it aside when he believes that she slept with Scarpia in order to obtain it. However, once he discovers the truth he makes no effort to retrieve it, because by now he knows that Tosca will not be escaping either because Scarpia’s body will be discovered soon enough. Such an idea ties in with his behaviour in the opera because if Cavaradossi thought Tosca had any chance of surviving he would be urging her to flee immediately. Believing her to be doomed, however, he encourages her to picture their future happiness as if it were now to ensure that her final moments are beautiful ones.
As the villain of the piece, Gerald Finley is so menacing as he asserts his strong bass-baritone that one is left wondering if this really is the same person who gave us possibly the most sensitive portrayal of Hans Sachs in recent years. Nevertheless, Finley’s Scarpia is still multi-faceted in that his cruelty carries with it a certain sinister charisma. He also reveals how the Chief of Police actually feels vulnerable by being so intoxicated by Tosca. This is because it is a shock to a man who is so used to controlling everything around him to discover that he cannot control himself. Although it does not entirely capture the sweeping nature of Puccini’s enigmatic score, Dan Ettinger’s conducting elicits a reasonably full, focused and balanced sound from the orchestra, and also helps to ensure that this is a strong revival of one of the Royal Opera’s classic productions.
Casts and conductors vary over the run. In particular, the role of Tosca is shared between Adrianne Pieczonka, Angela Gheorghiu and Martina Serafin, while Plácido Domingo conducts all performances from 17 February onwards. For full details visit the Royal Opera House website.
Tosca will be broadcast live to selected cinemas in the UK and worldwide on 7 February, while some cinemas will also show encore screenings over subsequent days. For details of participating venues visit the Royal Opera House Live Cinema Season website.