How do you like your Tosca? If it's the all-star showcase experience you're after look elsewhere, for no glass-shattering big beasts are gracing this latest incarnation of Jonathan Kent's handsome Royal Opera production. As revived (quite superbly) by Andrew Sinclair, this presentation of Puccini's operatic thriller catches fire through its drama, not its decibels, and it's the sheer damned theatricality of the night that sears the senses.
When the central trio is as evenly matched as it is here the battle is already half-won. In recent years Amanda Echalaz has cornered the market as London’s go-to Tosca, scoring a triple header of personal triumphs at Opera Holland Park and English National Opera as well as previously at this address when she deputised for an indisposed Angela Gheorghiu. This time the South-African-born soprano appears as the doomed diva in her own right and she inhabits the role like a second skin. Tosca’s brattish exchanges with Cavaradossi in Act One elicit hearty chuckles from the audience while her anguished resistance to Scarpia in Act Two is deeply unsettling. Echalaz’s voice is not large but she is no Floria Light, and if her great aria ‘Vissi d’arte’ makes less of a hair-raising impact that it sometimes does that is a small price to pay for three hours of devastating realism.
The dashing Massimo Giordano lends an ideal blend of swagger, ardour and heroism to Cavaradossi. The youthful Italian tenor clearly luxuriates in his voice, which is something of a gilded monster (‘Recondita armonia’ in Act One was low on finesse, and the running jump to his high notes was akin to the one Tosca takes to her final Fosbury Flop); nevertheless he found a steel in the character’s backbone that rendered Tosca’s adoration entirely plausible, and he sang - and acted - the immortal ‘E lucevan le stelle’ in Act Three with magnificent conviction.
Michael Volle is a Scarpia whose veins run black. Eschewing his predecessors’ pop-eyed snarls, the German baritone portrays the chief of police as brooding presence, dark of heart but chillingly matter-of-fact in his determination to have his evil way. Volle’s every gesture appears spontaneous, his every utterance tinged with inevitability. His powerful voice is never overstated and sits well with that of Echalaz so that the huis clos of Act Two becomes a night of cumulative psychological horror.
Puccini’s opening phrase (a statement of the forbidding Scarpia theme) was limply played, but thereafter the Italian conductor Maurizio Benini’s interpretation took wing and the opera’s screw was turned with pitiless inexorability by the Royal Opera Orchestra until the tragic conclusion. Benini’s contribution to the concluding Act was taut and eloquent in its intensity.
Paul Brown’s stylishly realistic designs for this production are always a joy to behold, littered as they are with bold touches such as the empty bookshelves that tell us all we need to know about Scarpia’s mind, or the fragment of a massive statue that flies ironically like a guardian angel’s wing above the roof of the Castel Sant’Angelo where the lovers meet their tragic end. Mark Henderson’s pre-dawn lighting in this final scene is quite beautiful and it was heralded on this occasion by a superlative account of the shepherd boy’s song from Michael Clayton-Jolly.
Don’t miss this Tosca; it’s the kind of evening that gives revivals a good name.
- Mark Valencia