Five years after Jonathan Kent’s production of Tosca for the Royal Opera House replaced the much-loved Franco Zeffirelli staging, it’s safe to say that Covent Garden audiences have taken it to their hearts – wholly traditional in feel, it transports the audience directly back to the very end of the 18th century (the libretto pinpoints the events to June 17–18, in the wake of Napoleon’s victory at Marengo), and is as striking and breathtaking in its scale as in 2006. The first night of this, its fourth revival, was healthily well-attended, and I’ve no doubt the following nine performances will be, too.
In fact, the last two shows of the run are among July’s hottest tickets, as, for those shows only, the starry names of Angela Gheorghiu, Jonas Kaufmann and Bryn Terfel are shipped in to take the three principal roles. So what, then, of the artists in place until then, who, through no fault of their own, are automatically labelled the ‘B’ cast?
Well, they’re no slouches, certainly: Martina Serafin made her Royal Opera House debut as Floria Tosca in 2008, while Marcello Giordani sang the role of Cavaradossi in the 2009 revival. Finnish bass-baritone Juha Uusitalo is the only newcomer, making his first appearance at Covent Garden in this production. And once those thunderous, fateful first chords blared out from the excellent ROH orchestra (with Antonio Pappano on his usual inspirational form – I doubt there is a greater conductor of Puccini active today) and the curtain rose, I don’t think anyone in the audience will have thought the principals’ performance in any way inferior to their more illustrious colleagues.
Serafin is a highly polished performer on stage, and certainly has all the notes of the role within her – her ‘Vissi d’arte’ was the musical and dramatic highlight of the night, and fully deserved its immediate applause, the only such outbreak of the evening. Perhaps she didn’t quite fill the auditorium with her passion during the final act, but her interplay with Uusitalo’s Scarpia during the Act II battle of wills was utterly gripping. The latter truly created evil on stage, with his menacing movements and unsettling, lightning-quick changes of vocal character – if not quite as eerily creepy as Samuel Ramey was in the role back in 2006, Uusitalo certainly ruled the stage with every movement and gesture.
Giordani is an ideal Cavaradossi, in my book: while his opening phrases seemed a little full-on for a tête-à-tête in the crypt of a Roman church, every other aspect was spot-on and extremely satisfying. His cheeky and cheerful demeanour served him well in Cavaradossi’s exchanges with the Sacristan and in taunting Scarpia even as he was dragged off to be executed, while he found a touching and tender side to his singing for the intimate moments with Tosca.
The only part of the spectacle where I felt let down was in the minor roles: current Jette Parker Young Artists Lukas Jakobski and Zhou Zhengzhong took the roles of Angelotti and Sciarrone respectively, but suffered from too much voice and not enough diction in the case of the former, and vice versa in the case of the latter. Jeremy White’s Sacristan was impeachable, though, while Hubert Francis’s sinister Spoletta caught the eye, too. But all in all, this is yet another success for the ROH and Kent’s production – do grab the chance to see it. While tickets for the Gheorghiu/Kaufmann/Terfel shows will be nigh impossible to come by, don’t hesitate to hear their equally excellent colleagues – you won’t be disappointed.