There was real-life as well as operatic drama on the stage at the Royal Opera’s first night of Tosca.
This performance will go down in the annals of Covent Garden history as the night of the two Cavaradossis. It was clear from the start that all was not well with American tenor Bryan Hymel, as his usual honeyed tones were replaced with something far more stentorian. His rendition of ‘Recondita Armonia’ was delivered at a relentless forte, phrasing was bumpy and he had to snatch way too many breaths. Before the second act the house manager appeared in front of the curtain, and confirmed our suspicions that Hymel indeed was unwell – he had been suffering from a cold, decided to sing anyway, but felt he couldn’t continue as his voice simply wouldn’t respond to what was asked of it. Luckily, Freddie de Tommaso was at hand, as he had been rehearsing that day (given he was scheduled to sing the role in the second cast), so we were told he would sing Cavaradossi for the remaining two acts.
A frisson of excitement spread through the theatre – how would this promising young British tenor fare, making an unscheduled role debut with a cast he hadn’t rehearsed with? Well, we’re happy to report he passed with flying colours – in fact you’d have to go back a long way to recall an equally assured and thrillingly voiced account of the role at this address. His voice had the required ‘squillo’ – evidenced in his rafters-rattling cries of ‘Vittoria’, yet was capable of some gloriously sculpted soft singing in ‘E lucevan e stelle’ in the last act. He saved the show, and in the process made one of the most exciting role debuts we’ve seen at Covent Garden in years – no mean feat for a singer who’s yet to turn 30. Luckily we’ll be back to see him sing all three acts, and we can’t wait.
The other major excitement of the night was the debut of Russian soprano Elena Stikhina. She not only caught Tosca’s tempestuousness, vanity and vulnerability to perfection, but sang with a glorious evenness of tone throughout the evening – at turns thrilling and heartbreaking. Her ‘Vissi d’arte’ rightly stopped the show. As compelling dramatically as she was musically, it was hard to take your eyes off her – let’s hope she returns soon. She’s sung Salome and Senta (Der Fliegende Holländer) to great acclaim recently – two roles we’d be more than happy to see assigned to her here.
“…you’d have to go back a long way to recall an equally assured and thrillingly voiced account of the role…”
Alexey Markov was a suave Chief of Police, eschewing the more oleaginous take on the role Bryn Terfel, the production’s original Scarpia, brought to the part. He really sang the role as well – sparks certainly flew in his confrontation with Tosca – only the closing Te Deum of the first act defeated him, but that’s more Puccini’s fault than his. All the comprimario roles were nicely etched, with special standouts from Yuri Yurchuk (Angelotti) and Hubert Francis (Spoletta) while Alfie Davis ushered in the Act III dawn as a pure-voiced Shepherd.
Leading a taut, full-blooded account in the pit, conductor Oskana Lyniv scored a huge personal success in her House debut, and was rewarded with faultless playing by the orchestra. Never fussy, or extrapolating details for the sake of it, her command of Puccini’s score was evident in every bar. Let’s hope the Royal Opera already have booked her to return.
Jonathan Kent’s production still works efficiently in Paul Brown’s handsome sets – here revived for the 10th time under the expert guidance of revival director Amy Lane, although surely Tosca would change her dress, complete with unfeasibly long train, after murdering Scarpia before heading to the Castel Sant’Angelo to ‘save’ Cavaradossi the following morning. But maybe, like her doomed lover, deep down she knew the fake execution was a scam – possibly. That’s just a minor niggle in the face of what turned out to be a thrilling performance – gloriously sung and conducted, and we can’t wait to see how the second cast fares later this week.