First seen in 2006 and now in its ninth revival, Jonathan Kent’s direction of Tosca is a no-frills, conventional presentation. Part of its success is due to the late Paul Brown’s period costumes and handsome designs which, while not overly endowed with imagination, bring verisimilitude with their increasing shadows and silhouettes. Therein is one of the drawbacks with Mark Henderson’s atmospheric but all-too-dim lighting, which is fine for underlining the impending tragedy that befalls Tosca and Cavaradossi but less helpful for illuminating the splendid fresco of Mary Magdalen in Act One or the virtually unrecognisable eagle perched above the Castel Sant’Angelo in Act Three.
Brown’s designs traverse the candlelit clutter of the Sant’Andrea della Valle (with its visually-inhibiting profusion of railings surrounding the altar) via Scarpia’s apartment in the Palazzo Farnese (grim realities of a torture chamber hidden from view) and becoming increasingly gloomy to mirror offstage torture, attempted seduction and Scarpia’s murder, through to a minimalist rooftop outline (parapet and little else) with a sparkling night sky.
In this current run, the third combination of a triple-cast, singing and characterisation are generally persuasive. Martina Serafin makes a creditable Tosca, impressing as a jealous and capricious lover, devout believer and vulnerable woman, but whose dumb-show in Act Two after killing Scarpia left me unmoved. Musically however, hers is a well-projected and intelligent interpretation, pinched high notes aside, which foregrounds beauty of tone over power. ‘Vissi d’arte’ is reined-in but there is no lack of warmth and plenty of humanity. She is well-matched vocally by Riccardo Massi’s admirable Cavaradossi who sailed through ‘Recondita armonia’ and found even greater brilliance in his victory celebrations in Act Two. Chemistry between them convinces, more so than their confrontations with a rich-toned Marco Vratogna as Scarpia. A coarser timbre might have added an ounce of menace to a role that he never makes truly loathsome.
Other characters are well-drawn – Jeremy White in fine form as the Sacristan, Simon Shibambu as the luckless Angelotti and Jai Sai Mehta ear-catching as the Shepherd-boy.
At the helm (and also for four further evenings) is Plácido Domingo ensuring excellent balance with the singers and drawing out much detail – the beginning of Act Three was especially rewarding. While his unhurried approach allowed the music to breathe this was sometimes at the expense of dramatic tension and momentum, so the ‘Te Deum’ (despite the energetic Chorus) was anything but commemorative and ‘E lucevan le stele’ became a stretched limo. Greater bite and thrust were needed in addition to Domingo’s intensity of spirit.