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Angela Gheorghiu as Tosca [Photo © ROH. Catherine Ashmore, photographer.]
22 Jan 2016

Tosca, Royal Opera

Christmas at the Royal Opera House is all about magic, mystery and miracles: as represented by the conjuror’s exploits in The Nutcracker — with its Kingdom of Sweets and Sugar Plum Fairy — or, as in the Linbury Theatre this year, the fantastical adventures of the Firework-Maker’s Daughter, Lila, and her companions — a lovesick elephant, swashbuckling pirates, tropical beasts and Fire-Fiends.

Tosca, Royal Opera

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Angela Gheorghiu as Tosca

Photos © ROH. Catherine Ashmore, photographer.


But, now that the tinsel has been returned to its box, it’s time to replace firecrackers with fiery passions, and so the main stage welcomes the seventh revival of Jonathan Kent’s 2006 Tosca (revival director Andrew Sinclair), which picks up the verismo violence where Damiano Michieleto’s Cav & Pag left off in December.

A ‘Welcome Note’ in the programme by Musical Director Antonio Pappano and Director of Opera Kasper Holten caught my attention: ‘… what would I not give to see and hear Tosca for the very first time — without knowing how it will end!’ What of the reviewer who has seen a particular production of this familiar opera several times, with singers returning to reprise roles: what is there to experience afresh?

On this occasion the return of Angela Gheorghiu in the title role, which she created in 2006 and has reprised several times since, offered instant reassurance that this is a production that merits re-visiting and still has lots to offer. From her first appearance in Act 1, Gheorghiu dominated the stage, but through strength of characterisation — vocal and dramatic — rather than any diva-ish mannerism or melodrama. The subtleties and nuances of her interpretation were notable: it was as if she could flick through a thesaurus of emotions and take her pick, by turns jealous, petulant, childish, playful, flirtatious, innocent, vulnerable and impetuous — often in close succession. Gheorghiu’s Tosca is beguilingly mischievous, as she teases Cavaradossi; peevishly mistrustful, as she waspishly demands that the artist re-paints the blue eyes of the figure in his fresco who so resembles her ‘rival’; understandably disgusted by Scarpia’s depraved advances. We forgive her flaws, understand the violence of her self-defence, and fear for her mental stability in the aftermath of murder.

2741ashm_0488 SAMUEL YOUN AS SCARPIA © ROH. PHOTO BY CATHERINE ASHMORE.pngSamuel Youn as Scarpia

Gheorghiu’s voice may lack a little of its former glossiness and lustre, but it is still a well-modulated instrument which she can manipulate at will, seeming to hold back at times to make the moments of dramatic impact yet more compelling. In Act 1 she began with slenderness and reticence, yet in her duet with Cavaradossi a bloom shone forth, revealing the passion within her soul while not, at this stage, giving it full voice. Lyricism gave way to tense brightness in the final moments of the Act in the face of Scarpia’s evil insinuations. She withheld during the interrogation scene in Act 2 which meant that when the angry outburst did arrive, we were shocked by our realisation of the passions within. The delicate thread which she spun at the start of ‘Vissi d’Arte’ confirmed her vulnerability, but she built to the soaring climax with hypnotic emotional and vocal power.

While Gheorghiu’s Tosca was nuanced and three-dimensional, Korean baritone Samuel Youn, in his debut at the House, was very much a ‘flat’ portrait of ‘evil’; he conveyed little sense of the sadist’s emotional complexity or recognisable human emotions — or even of an unfathomable psychology such as Iago’s ‘motiveless malignancy’. (After all, Scarpia himself does identify with Shakespeare’s sinister schemer: ‘Iago had a handkerchief, and I a fan/ To drive a jealous lover to distraction!’)

In fact, we need to perceive the motivating forces which lie deep within Scarpia’s twisted psyche, in order to understand the erotic perversion which drives him to sadism. Unfortunately, while Youn sang with impressive strength and depth — well-supported by the ominously dark, low growls of the orchestral horns — the emotional engagement between this Scarpia and his quarry was weak. And, at times, as he turned to face the audience, snarling his venom with ferocity, he seemed in danger of becoming a pantomime villain, his evil ‘larger than life’ but lacking in genuine moral ugliness.

Gheorghiu found herself in a similarly ‘cool’ partnership with her beloved Cavaradossi, sung by the Italian tenor Riccardo Massi. Vocally Massi was a good fit for the role: he seemed comfortable with the high-lying passages, phrased cleanly and convincingly, and has a pleasing, if somewhat characterless, tone. Initially a little hesitant in ‘Recondita armonia’, he grew in confidence and ‘E lucevan le stelle’ was movingly anguished. But, Massi’s acting, and vocal acting, is somewhat low-key, resulting in an impression of youthful inexperience, even disengagement, that conveyed little of Cavaradossi’s characteristic confident swagger; and Massi was never a match for Tosca’s passionate persona. Though touching direct and tender in their Act 1 duet, ‘Qual’occhio’, he was a long way from capturing the ‘erotic lyricism’ — termed ‘pornophony’ by one commentator.

2741ashm_0413 ANGELA GHEORGHIU AS TOSCA, RICCARDO MASSI AS CAVARADOSSI © ROH. PHOTO BY CATHERINE ASHMORE - Copy.pngAngela Gheorghiu as Tosca and Riccardo Massi as Cavaradossi

The supporting roles were consistently excellent. Donald Maxwell fussed and fretted as the Sacristan, his baritone strong and the diction clear. The Australian tenor and former Royal Opera House Young Artist, Hubert Francis, reprised his unpleasant and menacing Spoletta, while Ukrainian baritone Yuriy Yurchuk — a current Jette Parker Young Artist — was especially convincing as the anxious Angelotti, using his lovely tone to garner our sympathy. Harry Fetherstonehaugh was a clear-voiced Shepherd Boy and the ROH Chorus put great effort into a rousing Te Deum.

Director Jonathan Kent and his designer Paul Brown begin with realism and shift gradually towards representation. The sets are extravagant and detailed. In Act 1 we are in the crypt of the Church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, with the High Altar visible above, behind an ornate, candle-adorned balustrade, and Cavaradossi’s fresco stage-right, decked in scaffolding. The altar is reached by means of a dual-staircase which encloses an outsized statue of the Virgin, the latter concealing the door to the Attavanti Chapel. I found that I took more note of the ecclesiastical comings and goings aloft on this occasion, perhaps because I was seated in the Amphitheatre, and found the suggestion of ongoing liturgical ritual as a backdrop to the tragic melodrama to be a convincing one. I was rather perplexed, therefore, by one critic’s observation that the set is for ‘some unfathomable reason, on split levels so that characters have to scurry up and down stairs’ … the stairs in question permitted further realistic touches, as when the Sacristan, making a hasty descent, stumbled on his robes. Act 2 introduces some symbolism in the form of the monstrous statue in Scarpia’s apartment at the Palazzo Farnese, an intimidating mass which dominates and threatens; and the symbolic mode is strengthened in the final Act, when a statue fragment hangs dauntingly over the Castel Sant’Angelo.

I began by noting Gheorghiu’s superb performance but French conductor Emmanuel Villaume was equally responsible for the excitement generated. Privileged with a direct view down into the pit, I watched Villaume stir up an immediate frisson in the opening bars, inspiring tremendously vigorous and propulsive playing by the orchestra of the ROH. He used his left hand like a whip which flashed to individual orchestra sections, demanding, and receiving, a thrillingly alert response. Villaume was not afraid to conduct a little ahead of his singers, confident that his urgent drive would impel them along. But, there was sensuousness and suavity, too, and a gripping dramatic sweep. This production (which is double cast) is worth seeing, however well you ‘know the show’.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

Floria Tosca: Angela Gheorghiu, Mario Cavaradossi: Riccardo Massi, Scarpia: Samuel Youn, Angelotti: Yuriy Yurchuk, Spoletta: Hubert Francis, Sacristan: Donald Maxwell, Sciarrone: David Shipley, Gaoler: John Morrissey; Director: Jonathan Kent, Conductor: Emmanuel Villaume, Revival Director: Andrew Sinclair, Designer: Paul Brown, Lighting Designer: Mark Henderson, Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, Monday 18th January 2016.

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