Tosca, Royal Opera, Covent Garden, June 2011

Sex, politics and religion — heady stuff when Sarah Bernhardt played the title character in Sardou’s 1887 play La Tosca, and Puccini saw her do it. He immediately wanted to turn the play into an opera, but there were problems with the rights, and he was soon busy with Manon Lescaut and then La Bohème. Eventually he managed to return to Sardou’s play and in January 1900 produced one of the greatest operas ever.

As Floria Tosca in this performance, Martina Serafin sang and acted beautifully, and Marcello Giordani was a superb Cavaradossi. Unfortunately in the dress rehearsal I attended, Juha Uusitalo was disappointing as Scarpia. I admired him immensely in October 2008 as Jokanaan in the Met’s Salome, but here he was strangely lacking in stage presence, and failed to exhibit the menace that this forceful and much feared police chief should have. After all this is based on real events, and Sardou specifically set the action during a period of less than 24 hours, from 17 June 1800 to dawn on June 18, when Napoleon was about to liberate Rome from the rule of Naples.

The two levels in Act I with Scarpia in the foreground. 

This political and personal drama is well served by Jonathan Kent’s production with its designs by Paul Brown, and well aided by Mark Henderson’s lighting, which starts very darkly in all three acts before gradually brightening, suiting the theatrical development in each case. The production has one or two unusual aspects: Act I is set on two levels, allowing Scarpia to sing on his own near the Attavanti chapel, while the choir and congregation are on the upper (ground) level; and in Act II after Tosca has killed Scarpia she finds the letter of safe-conduct not in his hand, but in the breast pocket of his jacket, stained with blood.

Martina Serafin as Tosca at the end of Act II

Scarpia’s henchman, Spoletta was brilliantly sung by Hubert Francis, whose acting and presence were stronger than that of his master, and the Sacristan in Act I was superbly portrayed by Jeremy White. These excellent performances of minor characters bring huge authenticity to the drama, but the main plaudits go of course to Serafin and Giordani, along with Antonio Pappano in the orchestra pit. Act III starts beautifully quietly — this is wonderful music, and Pappano directed it with immense sensitivity — but the repeated coughs in the audience were distracting. The Royal Opera House needs to think how they might alleviate this irritating problem — how would they manage it if this were a live cinema relay?

Performances of Tosca with the current cast continue until June 30, followed by two further performances on July 14 and 17 with Angela Gheorghiu as Tosca, Jonas Kaufman as Cavaradossi and Bryn Terfel as Scarpia — for details click here.

I shall report on the Gheorghiu/ Kaufman/ Terfel cast after the July 14 performance.

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