Evening Standard, May 13, 2008
By Nick Kimberley
Puccini: Tosca, London, ROH, 12 May 2008
Sex, death and politics
No one could accuse Puccini’s Tosca of being long-winded. In barely 100 minutes, it delivers corruption, sexual passion, political insurrection, religious hypocrisy and a small matter of murder. The problem is that the action spreads across three acts, and few productions get by without two intervals.

In Jonathan Kent’s 2006 staging (revived by Stephen Barlow), the intervals add up to an hour of blank time, handy for the caterers but not so great for the dramatic tension.

Part of the problem is the sheer size of Paul Brown’s sets; hovering between pictorialism and abstraction, they take an age to move into position. Once there, they threaten to dwarf the singers.

Fortunately Covent Garden’s cast shines, even in the tenebrous glow of Mark Henderson’s lighting. The singers in turn are blessed by the presence in the pit of Antonio Pappano, who knows when to drive the music hard but who also reveals a wealth of orchestral nuance that truly supports his singers. Although none of the three principals is a natural actor, each knows how to embody character through the voice; that may be the essence of opera, but it is a surprisingly rare quality.

Paolo Gavanelli manages to make Scarpia more than just your run-of-the-mill corrupt copper. There are moments of real tenderness to balance the bleat and bluster that is all this particular Chief of Police usually offers; but Gavanelli also does ugly when required.

Not so the German tenor Jonas Kaufmann, the heart-throb tenor of the day. As Cavaradossi there is a dark and dangerous quality to his bearing, while the voice balances grace with intensity, particularly at the top of its range, which is thrilling in a way few of his contemporaries can match.

If anything Kaufmann is more impressive than the Tosca of Micaela Carosi, making her Covent Garden debut. Of course Tosca lives life as a crisis but Carosi overacts the character’s over-acting. Her voice, though, is boldly coloured, saturated with melancholy one moment, delicate and sensual the next.

This is a Tosca who really learns what love is about, even if she has to die for it. Often her plunge from the parapet seems like mere self-dramatisation; here it carries the weight of genuine tragedy.

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