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Amanda Echalaz as Tosca [Photo by ROH / Kenton]
05 Mar 2013

Tosca, Royal Opera

Puccini’s “shabby little shocker”, to quote Kerman, does not invite subtlety. For those who feel that opera — a hybrid art form encompassing all the arts and embracing all of life and love, transfiguration and tragedy — is ideally suited to depicting the excesses of human ecstasy and suffering, Tosca epitomises the immoderations of the genre.

Tosca, Royal Opera

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Amanda Echalaz as Tosca [Photo by ROH / Kenton]

 

The dramatic pulse certainly runs high in Jonathan Kent’s ROH production, first seen in 2006 and here receiving its fifth revival under the direction of Andrew Sinclair. Kent’s approach is characterised by two principals: tradition and realism. This is no bad thing: we’re given an experience which, one imagines, must be just as Puccini imagined it — all visual extravagance, dramatic intensity and musical emotionalism. Kent combines the universality of the emotional drama with the particularities of the time and place, costume and setting unambiguously announcing the Napoleonic context.

The opulent rococo interior of Paul Brown’s gilded church of Sant’Andrea della Valle in Act 1 makes a bold visual statement, its split levels shimmering in the lavish glow of a multitude of sacred candles. We are behind the high altar, the crypt visible below; the effect should be one of spaciousness but in fact the numerous balustrades and balconies restrict the stage space available, and it feels rather cluttered and overly fussy. Moreover, the chorus are pushed to the back, which diminishes the impact of the Te Deum.

Scarpia’s sordid study in the Palazzo Farnese is dominated by a huge statue, a striking symbol of domination and intimidation. The bookcases are empty, save for the single set of shelves which hide the door to his torture chamber. In contrast to the baroque splendour of Act 2, the Castel Sant’Angelo in the final act is more sparsely adorned save for a gigantic statue fragment that flies aloft. Mark Henderson’s beautiful lighting design skilfully paint the expressive colours; most strikingly, in Act 2 Henderson atmospherically conjures the shadowy recesses of Scarpia’s psyche.

The main roles in this production have previously been inhabited by Gheorghiu, Kaufmann and Terfel — modern operatic titans. But, while there were no ‘superstars’ this time around, the cast is strong-voiced and dramatically convincing, and both Amanda Echalaz and Massimo Giordano have of late established themselves on the international stage, as Tosca and Cavaradossi respectively. Indeed, having won acclaim on the other side of town, at ENO and Holland Park, Eschalaz also stood in for the indisposed Gheorghiu at Covent Garden in 2009.

Echalaz used her weighty voice and full vibrato to portray a Tosca equipped with feisty self-belief, her petulant exchanges with Cavaradossi in Act 1 revealing a woman who knows her own mind and who has a short emotional fuse. She was at her best in this opening act, and during her agonised resistance to Scarpia in Act 2, where her rich legato and dramatic commitment won our full compassion. Perhaps this Tosca lacked a little of the frail vulnerability which contrasts with her impetuousness, and which underpins her tragedy? That said, ‘Vissi d’arte’ was quietly understated but deeply felt and affecting, as Echalaz convincingly conveyed the poignant destruction wrought by Scarpia’s ruthless cruelty.

Just as Echalaz has visited this production stage before, so Massimo Giordano also stepped in for the Marcello Giordani back in 2009 and is an experienced Cavaradossi. Giordano looks and sounds the part: young and handsome, he can embody the fervent swagger and heroic self-belief of the painter, and this demeanour is matched by a warm, smooth tone and firm vocal weight. However, while volume was never prioritised at the expense of dramatic engagement, Giordano’s characterisation seemed somewhat superficial. There was much Italianate grace in the tenor’s singing, but also a few unsteady swoops up to the top: while his big Act 1 aria, ‘Recondita armonia’ was full of impact, it was low on delicacy and subtlety.

In ‘E lucevan le stelle’ Giordano more successfully balanced power and feeling, and the moments as he waited for his execution, on the roof of the Castel Sant’ Angelo were painfully fraught. Together Echalaz and Giordano told a convincing tale without really tugging at the heart-strings.

Michael Volle’s Scarpia was a more commanding presence, all sneering contempt and brooding evil. Volle was no cartoon-villain: his gestures were discreet but his moral ugliness and perverted desires were chillingly apparent. This was a man as devoid of humanity as his library is barren of books; his Act 2 duet with Echalaz built to an almost unbearable point of psychological repulsion, as his depravity was exposed for both Tosca and us.

The minor roles were all excellent; well-sung and charismatic. Jeremy White as the Sacristan engaged naturally and convincingly with the other personnel, and Hubert Francis was a nastily predatory Spoletta. Best of all, Michael Clayton-Jolly gave a wonderful rendition of the shepherd boy’s song.

After a rather understated opening, conductor Maurizio Benini revealed a sure ear for a diversity of Puccinian textures, proving alert to the details of the score and conveying a strong sense of the grand sweep of the musico-drama. There was much superb playing from the pit, although I’d have liked a bit more rawness and concentrated intensity at the climactic heights.

Overall, a revival worth seeing. Musical and dramatic standards are consistently high, sets and costumes are captivatingly luxurious and, however familiar, there’s nothing like Tosca to stir the passions.

Claire Seymour


Cast and production information:

Floria Tosca — Amanda Echalaz; Mario Cavaradossi — Massimo Giordano; Baron Scarpia — Michael Volle; Spoletta — Hubert Francis; Angelotti — Michel de Souza; Sacristan — Jeremy White; Sciarrone — Jihoon Kim; Gaoler — John Morrissey; Shepherd Boy — Michael Clayton-Jolly; Conductor — Maurizio Benini; Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera Chorus; Director — Jonathan Kent; Designs — Paul Brown; Lighting design — Mark Henderson; Revival Director — Andrew Sinclair. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, Saturday 2nd March 2013

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