In a top performance of Tosca, Puccini's black thriller
which reeks of religiosity and has an ever-shattering score, the earth can
move in several ways. With a cast led by three of the greatest
singers in the world – Jonas Kaufmann, Bryn Terfel and, in the title role,
Angela Gheorghiu – the stampede of applause alone makes the floorboards
tremble. It's hard to stay cool in the face of such adoration, and why would
you want to?
This was the case in the Royal Opera's end-of-season stellar revival of
Jonathan Kent's workable, handsome but stolid production, new in 2006. The
curtain call was a delicious mini psychodrama, with Kaufmann, the
artist-hero Cavaradossi, taking a simple bow as the audience roared, Terfel
equally restrained, provoking a perhaps even more thunderous burst of foot
stamping and cheers.
Gheorghiu alone took the opportunity to do a few cheerleader-type waves
and "What, me?" pirouettes while the rest of the cast waited benignly.
Laying her vast bouquets down at the front of the stage, she went and
fetched the conductor, ROH music director Antonio Pappano, at which point
the eruption became deafening. For some of us, our applause was for the
Royal Opera Orchestra too, who had played superbly and who collectively
sustain a phenomenal standard all year.
You may grow weary of an umpteenth revival – though in Tosca
terms this production is barely toddling; the Royal Opera's last, by
Zeffirelli, endured 40 years. Yet this radical score, with its famed
displays of supreme lyricism ("E Lucevan le Stelle" and "Vissi d'arte"),
always catches you in some raw, unexpected way. One such moment was when the
lecherous Scarpia, standing in Rome's great Sant'Andrea della Valle with
mass under way, curses Tosca for "making me forget God", before fearfully,
or cynically, joining in the final words of the Te Deum.
Terfel, in every sense a towering and mesmerising presence, gave that
sordid show of piety even greater force than usual. He calibrates his anger,
vocally and physically, with chilling precision, from political aggression
to power-lust to sexual frustration. It's hard to imagine a more lascivious
or devious Scarpia. Terfel reveals the tortured, self-loathing complexity of
this evil character, too often done merely as a monster.
The other astonishing showstopper was in Act II, when Cavaradossi
realises he has been betrayed. The score careers crazily, rapid
chromaticisms forcing the music asunder while the trombones bulldoze through
with plunging chords, all a prelude to the hero's climactic cry of
"victory!". Kaufmann, sensitive to every dynamic marking and nuance, held
his top B flat (A sharp in the score) with a vigour which, unimaginably and
against nature, grew louder and louder – and yet retained its
In comparison, Gheorghiu was, well, just Gheorghiu: she has such natural
vocal ease that it must seem to her enough just to be there, and it's true,
she can still outdo most of her rivals. Stiffened by a starchy,
frosted-white gown and peaked tiara, she has a doll-like, milk-toned
rigidity, her chilly passion kept under lock and key.
That said, her encounters with Cavaradossi had a discernible chemistry,
and her bloodcurdling outburst at the realisation that he is dead, not
merely pretending, reminded us why this Romanian diva draws the crowds. You
can see this performance at cinemas in the autumn. And book now for
Kaufmann, snaffled by Raymond Gubbay for a Royal Festival Hall recital on 24
October – oddly described as a "London debut". Perhaps I was seeing things.