In this reprise of Jonathan Kent’s 2006 production of Tosca at the Royal Opera House, revived by Andrew Sinclair, we are transported back to Roma in 1800. Paul Brown’s simple designs are beautifully evocative of the Eternal City and the costumes place us securely in the period of the Napoleonic Wars when Italy, rather like today, had a change of government almost once a year. Each new regime heralds further disillusionment with government, fails to address the huge divide between aristocracy and peasantry and seemingly has little impact on the normal lives of ordinary mortals.
But the three protagonists of Tosca are not your average inhabitant of Rome in 1800. Cavaradossi is the son of an aristocrat in exile and was born in Paris, where the established order has already been overturned. Tosca is the equivalent of a film star today. Her unusual role in society makes her powerful and yet vulnerable, because of her gender. Scarpia adopts the unenviable role of Lord High Executioner and is the one protagonist clinging on to the old world order. The common ground between the three is that they are all guilty of hubris.
For me and many others Maria Callas was the quintessential Tosca. Her portrayal in the 1964 Zeffirelli production at the Royal Opera House was of a powerful, passionate and unpredictable iconic figure destined to leave a trail of death in her wake. George Hall writes, “Part of Maria Callas’ insight into the role of Tosca consisted in a recognition that her character was – however perversely – attracted to her tormentor, as personified by Tito Gobbi, who maintained a degree of aristocratic charm as essential to his portrayal of Scarpia.” If you subscribe to that scenario as I do, it means we are watching a clash of two Titans, making both Angelotti and Cavaradossi mere collateral damage.
Michael Volle as Scarpia did indeed give a Titanic performance. He artfully tempered Scarpia’s arrogance and lust for control with a seductive charm which should have been enough to bring any woman to her knees. Despite the appeal of passion with Scarpia, Tosca was not willing to subsume her own ego to his. I remember Volle’s performance as Dr Schön in the ROH 2009 Lulu production in which he proved himself a consummate physical and vocal actor. They say the Devil gets all the best tunes; in Tosca Scarpia’s vocal lines are mainly through-composed rather than in the form of arias. Volle supported these seemingly endless vocal expositions, giving one of the best examples of line and length singing I have heard in some time, enabling him to maintain energy and tension to the end of every phrase. His voice has a resonance which was perfect for this large house, especially in the extraordinary Te Deum where his voice floats above both orchestra and chorus, exposing his evil scheme in open defiance of his faith. His diction is excellent so I heard every word.
Apart from what I am sure is a cheeky reference to Cavalleria rusticana (by Puccini’s former flatmate) in the opening scene and a couple of incidences of a familiar cadence from Turandot, a lot of Tosca seems to me to preview the music of Il tabarro and even Suor Angelica, two very human tragedies. The orchestra, conducted on this occasion by Maurizio Benini, threw itself heart and soul into the kaleidoscope of instrumental colours which Puccini employs. However there were a few noticeable disagreements in ensemble which I have to attribute to the conductor and there were times where he was not the most sensitive accompanist of either his Tosca or his Cavaradossi.
And now to Amanda Echalaz, who famously stepped into the role of Tosca at short notice to replace Angela Gheorghiu in 2009 and has since reprised the role around the world: I was hoping for someone who could persuade me that Maria Callas’ Tosca can be surpassed. Echalaz has mastered the role vocally. “Vissi d’arte” – as it had to be – was beautifully and sensitively sung, a little oasis of tenderness in the middle of the torment and violence of Act II. I love the fact she can give us a variety of tone colours and ease off the gas pedal to float some very beautiful high notes. However, she is not assertive enough, not the strong independent woman I want Tosca to be and I don’t think the costume in Act I suited her at all. Au naturel Echalaz has an arresting beauty, but in this costume she looked too much like the very thing Tosca is not. She didn’t convey the charisma and startling beauty needed to convince me that Cavaradossi was madly in love with her. The glittering concert dress of Acts II and III was a definite improvement, but that extravagant train seemed to hamper her movement at every turn in Act II. She seemed unable to match Volle’s acting, his vocal power or his sheer force of personality. In Act III once Volle is out of the picture, she finally comes into her own; her death scene was beautifully handled, making full use of that train.
She may have been outclassed by her scenes with Volle, but to her credit, Echalaz tackled the difficult proposition of singing her duets with her Cavaradossi with great professionalism, despite what I perceived as a lack of support from her musical director. When Massimo Giordano made his first entrance I thought how nice it was to see a young tenor who looks the part; then he opened his mouth. My first reaction was that the last time I heard this kind of singing was in a small restaurant on the seafront in Naples. (Dear reader, I have been known to pay buskers in Italy to go away.) I couldn’t believe I was hearing such lavish use of portamento, sometimes a scoop from a third below the note, a bit like a pole-vaulter taking a long run up. On reflection this may well have been the style of singing popular in Italy in 1900, if all those Neapolitan songs we love to hate are anything to go by. So just maybe Giordano is the only authentic Puccini singer we have today. Poor Amanda Echalaz - how on earth do you sing a duet with someone when you’ve no idea how long it is going to take them to climb up to the top note, never mind co-ordinate coming back down at the end of the phrase?
Hubert Francis was spot on as Spoletta, the Lewis to Volle’s Morse. Jeremy White seemed to relish the character role of the Sacristan and two Jette Parker alumni took on the roles of Sciarrone (Jihoon Kim) and Angelotti (Michel de Souza.)
Photographs © Tristram Kenton