The Royal Opera – Tosca [Gheorghiu, Terfel & Giordani]

Tosca – Opera in three acts to a libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa & Luigi Illica based on Victorien Sardou’s play La Tosca [sung in Italian with English surtitles]

Mario Cavaradossi – Marcello Giordani
Floria Tosca – Angela Gheorghiu
Baron Scarpia – Bryn Terfel
Cesare Angelotti – Kostas Smoriginas
Sacristan – Jeremy White
Spoletta – Martyn Hill
Sciarrone – Matthew Hargreaves
Shepherd Boy – Johan de Silva
Gaoler – John Morrissey

The Royal Opera Chorus

The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Jacques Lacombe

Jonathan Kent – Director
Stephen Barlow – Revival Director
Paul Brown – Designer
Mark Henderson – Lighting Designer

Reviewed by: Kevin Rogers

Reviewed: 9 July, 2009
Venue: The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

Bryn Terfel as Scarpia & Angela Gheorghiu as Tosca. Photograph: Catherine AshmoreDeborah Voigt was to have sung Tosca for these performances. However, illness has forced her to withdraw. The Royal Opera has secured at short notice Angela Gheorghiu for three of the five performances and Nelly Miricioiu for the others.

Jonathan Kent’s staging – which was at the expense of the famed Franco Zeffirelli one – continues to disappoint in the outer acts. Whilst fairly realistic, the Church of Sant’ Andrea della Valle – the three acts are set in real locations in Rome – is dramatically inert and looks flimsy; characters populate it – frequently manic when running about – but rarely inhabit it. It is a church under some reconstruction (that is why Cavaradossi, an artist, is there!) but there is too much distracting clutter, with lighting and colours being oppressive. The final act, on the terrace at the top of Castel Sant’ Angelo, is a lame realisation. It is supposed to be dawn yet is shrouded in darkness, and what looked like a giant feathered wing hung from the sky for no obvious purpose.

Tosca, Act Two. Photograph: Catherine AshmoreBaron Scrpia’s room in the Farnese Palace is much better, and depicted the mind of the deranged and sadistic man wonderfully. There’s a dominating statue of a mythical figure with a sword – Archangel Michael – with books strewn about the place (Rome is having difficulty with Bonaparte and there would have been plenty of local troubles), all reflecting accurately his state of mind. It is a pity that Scarpia is one-dimensionally demonic from his first appearance in the Church – there is no natural, aristocratic authority (a great Italian trait in some) to his orders or wanderings in the church. He is too easily mad – his unkempt and flowing hair does not help with projecting a sense of power – with desire for Tosca, though Bryn Terfel’s acting is scene-stealingly excellent.

The three principals were ideally-matched physically and came together vocally in Act Two very well. Terfel is huge and towers above everyone – Scarpia rules, Tosca is subordinated and Cavaradossi is caught between the two. Their inner strengths and frailties differ.

Marcello Giordani as Cavaradossi & Angela Gheorghiu as Tosca. Photograph: Catherine AshmoreGiordani’s Cavaradossi was a triumph; he exhibited a fearless abandon, his big voice filling the House. He was notable in the quiet, tender moments, but it was the powerful cries, such as ‘Vittori! Vittori!’, when facing down Scarpia, that he really grew in stature. His voice is not essentially pure (Puccini asks for a lyric tenor) and malleable but it is a force-of-nature that makes Cavaradossi heroic.

The chemistry between Giordani and Gheorghiu grew organically and became palpably genuine by the final duet. Gheorghiu has a lot of dashing about to do, and she was visibly hampered by the frocks she was wearing. Her Tosca would be better suited to not having to scramble about in such an non-ladylike fashion. Doubts were cast in Act One about her suitability for the part: to be sure, Gheorghiu has a beautiful voice that can open up at the top end with crystal clarity but there was difficulty from her when attacking phrases. Her ‘Vissi d’arte’, however, was beautiful and caught all its longing and despair.

Bryn Terfel as Scarpia. Photograph: Catherine AshmoreTerfel’s Scarpia was a tour de force. His presence was writ large, as it should be. There was a moment in Act Two when one of his minions reports bad news. Unhappy, Scarpia lurches towards him and the underling falls to the ground in fright without being touched – the moment made a lot in the audience sit back in shock, too. Terfel’s bulk goes a long way in helping him overpower others, and his manhandling of Tosca was especially cruel. To the singing Terfel brings a booming bass that is laced with malevolence.

The other roles may be minor but can, nevertheless, bring notable performances. Kostas Smoriginas had a lovely care-free ring to his voice and Jeremy White’s Sacristan was more than the usual bumbling priest. Johan de Silva projected ably from off-stage the Shepherd Boy’s lament in fine fashion, evoking distance, at the opening of Act Three.

This was the debut with The Royal Opera of Canadian Jacques Lacombe (he has conducted for The Royal Ballet), a ‘primary colours’-only account, quite a disappointment. The Orchestra revelled in the ‘big’ moments, such as the sounding of famous ‘Scarpia chords’ that occur throughout the opera – the very opening was particularly menacing, unhurried and immediately arresting. Pacing was fine and sympathetic to the singers.

There was much to enjoy on this night with this “shabby little shocker” of an opera.

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