The Observer, 17 July 2011
Fiona Maddocks
Puccini: Tosca, ROH London, 14 July 2011

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 ringing splendour.

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.




 back top