Puccini’s 1900 opera is billed as a ‘melodrama’, and this could not be closer to the truth. Tosca has always been a perfect opera for newcomers because of this excess: both the story and music are gloriously extroverted. It’s set in Rome in 1800, where Floria Tosca, a sensuous and jealous young opera singer, is unknowingly drawn into the political game playing of her lover Cavaradossi. He is an artist who is painting a mural of Mary Magdalene in the church of Sant’Andrea delle Valle. It is here, in the crypt, that he hides an escaped political prisoner, who the Roman authorities are desperately looking for. Roman Police chief Scarpia, self-styled scourge of Rome, is suspicious of Cavaradossi and tortures Tosca into revealing her lover’s secret. The consequences are inevitably tragic.
If this all sounds like something from the early days of cinema, that’s because it almost is. Tosca directly precedes the first cinema experiments, which were also full of such exhilarating narratives. But Puccini’s opera succeeds is in the way it transcends the melodramatic; this is seen best in the show stopping aria E Lucevan le stelle, where Cavaradossi sings of his love for Tosca. Instead of using this as a dramatic crescendo, Puccini pairs down the music so that the tenor all but whispers the first notes, while the orchestra holds the main tune. When done well this can create goose-bumps in the audience. The libretto also works as a reminder of the play between artifice and reality. There were titters of delight in the audience when Scarpia tells Tosca he never saw such tragic behaviour when she was on the stage, and when he menacingly clapped Tosca’s famous aria Vissi d’arte, after the audience’s own applause had died down, the meta-drama of the piece was again beautifully exposed.
It is flourishes like this which have meant that Jonathan Kent’s production, first created in 2006, has stood the test of time. There has hardly been a Royal Opera House season since which has not included it. Here it is ably revived by Duncan McFarland, with lavish sets by Paul Brown. The stage design is all dark wood and vast monuments which serve to emphasise the power the state has over the two doomed lovers. At one point Tosca bows her head below a massive neo-classical sculpture of a man slaying a figure at his feet: her body reduced to almost nothing in comparison. The ghostly De Chirico-like landscape of the final act is full of dark shadowy spaces underneath a threatening starlit sky, a canopy which hangs uncomfortably over proceedings.
Many rising stars of the operatic world have been in this production at some point: but the piece was first created around Angela Gheorghiu, and one suspects that this is when it works best. Gheorghiu is singing again in this revival of the production, alongside Jonas Kaufmann and Bryn Terfel, but for two performances only. For the rest of the run, their roles are taken by Martina Serafin (as Tosca), Marcello Giordano (as Cavaradossi) and Juha Uusitalo (as Scarpia). The second castings of an opera production have been known to out-shine the first on many an occasion, but unfortunately this is not the case here.
Uusitalo feels ill-at-ease in his portrayal of Scarpia, stumbling though the first act (covered brilliantly by Antonio Pappano, whose careful handling of the baton bought out the full force of the orchestra). Serafin gives a stronger performance as Tosca, but never fully taps into emotional core of the work which leaves her Act Two death-struggle with Scarpia looking like pure pantomime. Giordano is the most accomplished of the three, taking the weight of the performance in the final act and – despite a slightly cracked note – singing E Lucevan le stelle with aplomb. This is a strong production, but needs more from its three leads if it is to fully transcend its melodramatic roots and become something more meaningful.