At the heart of Puccini's lean, mean tale is the clash between virtue and evil. Scarpia, Rome's monstrous Chief of Police, presses the devout Tosca to reveal the whereabouts of an escaped political prisoner, Angelotti. Scarpia's tactics are brutal: he subjects Tosca's beloved Cavaradossi to torture, within her earshot, in order to wheedle the information from one or other of them. The lady it is who falters, but she then achieves an ambivalent redemption by stabbing Scarpia to death. In Act Three we discover that the devil has a long arm, and he doesn't deal in happy endings.
The stars are shining brightly in this, the third revival of Jonathan Kent's production. Bryn Terfel and Angela Gheorghiu return to it for the first time since the 2006 launch, and their performances are incandescent. Gheorghiu's Tosca is intelligent in her compassion and sexy in her vulnerability. Her devotional sincerity allows Vissi d'arte to emerge naturally, and quite magnificently, from her agony. Kent and Gheorghiu ensure that this is no isolated stand-and-deliver moment, but an organic development of the drama. As an object of desire this Tosca is chaste yet sensuous, hence the big, bad policeman's compulsion to seduce her.
Terfel's Scarpia is Inspector Javert crossed with a Dementor. His stillness is unnerving, and whenever he does move – always slowly and deliberately – we feel the air chill in his wake. Each of these great singers is in fine vocal shape, but their astonishing acting is something else again.
Jonathan Kent's characteristic intensity survives unscathed in Stephen Barlow's meticulous revival, and thanks to his principals it is as urgent and spontaneous as the day the production was born. Only Martyn Hill disappoints with some distractingly am-dram moments as the henchman Spoletta. Marcello Giordani is a strong, sensitive Cavaradossi; a little raucous perhaps but a plausible partner to Gheorghiu. His cry of Vittoria! in Act Two may hurt the eardrums, but later on his famous starlight aria, E lucevan le stelle , is powerful and true.
The ROH Orchestra responds boldly to Jacques Lacombe's direction, despite the fact that it takes him a while to get the batteries fully charged so Act One, where mood and tempo turn on a sixpence, is flat and four-square. Happily, no such problems afflict the later acts, and on opening night as Lacombe motored through the operatic landscape I felt I was experiencing this over-familiar score for the first time.
Tucked away in Paul Brown's naturalistic designs are touches of expressionism that remind us of the opera's elemental nature. Scarpia's dark psyche extends to his grim chambers, which are bare and patched together with makeshift items in a way that mirrors his human deficiencies. Tosca's dress, a stage costume her character is wearing when the terror begins, combines sultriness and purity in one cunning design. In Act Three the startling cadaver of a giant bird, that most potent of death omens, hangs low in the night sky. It's smart, this shocker, and a long way from shabby.