Opera UK, July 2008
Royal Opera at Covent Garden, May 12
Moments before the opening curtain of my first Tosca (Bumbry, Domingo, Gobbi, the leading lady a late substitution), a woman took her seat next to mine, opened her programme, and turned to ask, in a pronounced Italian accent, ‘What happened to Tebaldi?’. It was a prophetic question, that cancellation presaging a dry spell that has endured to the present day. After the riches of the mid 20th century, with the likes of Milanov, Price, Caballé and Olivero, not to mention You-Know-Who, the faithful have waited for a successor, a genuine dramatic soprano who could step into the verismo or Verdian repertory and justify staging yet another Tosca or Trovatore. Angela Gheorghiu, the raison for the ROH’s new production of Puccini’s ‘shabby little shocker’ in 2006, apparently did not rise to the occasion, with too much temperament offstage and too little voice on. Much was hoped for from the new cast for this revival.

Micaela Carosi doesn’t quite rank with the sopranos just mentioned, at least not yet. A couple of mishaps shadowed her debut. After her offstage ‘Mario’s, coming forward at the top of the staircase on the split-level set, she tripped slightly, and if it isn’t quite true that she nearly hurtled to her death two acts early, the parapet inevitably came to mind. Then, just before she stabbed Scarpia. as she was forced backwards onto the littered desk, the back of her gown picked up a couple of official documents, so that after dispatching her tormentor, Carosi stalked around the stage like an allegorical figure for Bureaucracy until she could brush herself off. One felt for her—but the mishaps would not have mattered had she triumphed vocally or theatrically, and she did not. The voice, if not distinctive, is ample, mostly well-tuned and attractive, filling the phrases and filling the house. But no line was memorably coloured, no move arresting. The characterization seemed ordinary, mechanical. The great Toscas give us something extra— authority, glamour, theatre, charisma. Paolo Gavanelli gave us something extra: ham. He overacted from start to finish, lacking the suaveness, the confidence, even the charm that the best baritones bring to the Roman thug. Snarling out the most innocuous lines, exaggerating his malice, all but twirling a moustache, he seemed the creation of a cartoonist, Scarpia as Snidely Whiplash. Gavanelli’s vocal equipment is in place and served him well enough, so that the part was competently sung; but when he neared a sustained, high-lying note he planted his feet, looked upward, and bayed into the flies. Also, his wigmaster did him no favours.

It is a pleasure to record that Jonas Kaufmann did not disappoint and even exceeded expectations, surpassing his Don José and Alfredo. ‘Recondita armonia’ was thrilling, the voice blooming in the higher reaches, with a rare combination of steel and velvet; and seldom since the young Domingo have the ‘Vittoria’s rung out so stirringly. If ‘E lucevan le stelle’ seemed a bit underpowered, the tone covered until the very last phrases, this may have been an expressive choice.

Jonathan Kent’s production, now in its third season, is conventional, just what one wants in this opera, and Stephen Barlow’s re-creation of the original staging unobjectionable, although the murder was botched, with Scarpia backing Tosca against the table and apparently trying to grasp her around the knees. Perhaps this moment was one of several attempts to eradicate clichés: Carosi delivered ‘Vissi d’arte’ standing up and she sang rather than spoke about the trembling Romans. The ROH orchestra played beautifully for Antonio Pappano, and the chorus, rhythmically sharp in the church scene, sounded uncommonly well rehearsed. But Puccini’s gift for mood-setting at the beginning of each act was nullified by my chatty neighbours: if nobody’s singing yet, they seemed to think, you can gabble away as if you were at home.

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