As a performance, this First Night was electric. Maurizio Benini's assured conducting left nowhere to hide: one succumbed to the opera’s base qualities, which made it so disliked by the critics at its first performance, and by a few since. The Scarpia chords that open the opera were forceful, imprinting themselves over what follows. The Royal Opera House Orchestra played with passion, Puccini's heady mix of drama and inescapable tragedy brought to the fore. Some individual contributions were sublime: the clarinet solo during Cavaradossi’s Act Three aria was exquisite and subtle, a true evocation of longing and distance, of want and love, it rose from nowhere and soaked up the Rome morning.
Amanda Echalaz's Tosca is a confident woman, knowing what she wants. Her account of 'Vissi d'arte' (an outpouring of what she has done in her life and a plea to God) was noble and solemn, and affecting for its humility. Elsewhere, her commanding voice complemented the strong character that Tosca is. Normally, Tosca leaps from the battlements of the Castel Sant'Angelo into the Tiber (geographic nonsense from Puccini!), but here she faces the audience and falls back: heart-stopping in its effectiveness.
Massimo Giordano is one of the most energetic performers of Cavaradossi to come to this stage, a huge presence, with a ringing, clarion tenor to match. He is a decent man, who rails against the injustices imposed by Scarpia and his regime, and that defiance, in the face of (supposedly faked) death, was vivid. His Act Three encounter with Tosca was interesting: he knew that he was doomed, despite Tosca's assurances, and so was living every moment for all its worth.
Baron Scarpia is pure evil, a lecherous man, and Michael Volle inhabited this character with relish, getting under the skin of his vile nature. His presence is felt even when not seen. It was not overt evil, but a blackness that was felt from his dead heart. Chilling!
The supporting cast was fine, too. The off-stage Shepherd Boy (Act Three), ably sung by Michael Clayton-Jolly, was particularly effective. The heady combination of superb orchestral playing – pulling one into the drama – and a principal trio of singers which is so immersed in the action made this an evening of enormous pleasure.
- Performances, with changes of cast, until 26 March at 7.30 p.m. (1 p.m. on 16 March)
- Royal Opera House