Puccini: Tosca

Royal Opera

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 14th May 2008 3.5 stars

Micaela Carosi as Tosca (Photo: Catherine Ashmore)Jonathan Kent's production of Tosca has been treated to some luxurious casts in its brief, two-year history. In this latest revival, Antonio Pappano conducted two singers who have justifiably become Covent Garden favourites, baritone Paolo Gavanelli and tenor Jonas Kaufmann, alongside a Tosca, Micaela Carosi, who was making her Royal Opera debut. In the end, it was a performance with many fine attributes that only rarely caught the passion of Puccini's famous score.

There was a vast amount to enjoy in Pappano's reading of the work. There had evidently been an awful lot of work done in orchestral rehearsals to bring out the many details of Puccini's masterful orchestration and it's rare indeed to hear such refinement and care from the pit in this opera. However, there was occasionally a feeling that some spontaneity was perhaps lost, for example in the meticulously synchronised portamenti that were liberally employed among the string parts in the First Act. More worryingly, there were times when the detailed specifics of Pappano's reading registered more than the grand dramatic sweep. This meant that as the screw was turned on Cavaradossi in the middle of the Second Act, and Puccini ratcheted up the tension in the orchestra, I found myself marvelling at the detail of the muted brass's busy interjections rather than getting swept along by the action. In the long love duet in the First Act too, the moments of grand passionate gesture, although beautifully executed and nuanced, only occasionally hit the spot emotionally.

Micaela Carosi and Jonas Kaufmann  (Photo: Catherine Ashmore)Part of the problem, in the First Act duet at least, also lay with the cast. Carosi certainly has a voice to fill the theatre but there were times when her rough-and-ready vocalism was incongruous with the refinement of Pappano's approach. Her intonation was often unreliable and she demonstrated a lack of control in a performance of 'Vissi d'arte' in which she never really managed anything below forte. She played the diva excellently, but didn't seem to have received much specific direction from the rivival's director, Stephen Barlow. As I came out after the Second Act and her murder of Scarpia, I overheard another audience member complain: 'it looked like she kills Scarpia every week'. That was maybe a bit unfair, but this remained a conventional portrayal of the role.

Opposite her, Jonas Kaufmann was making his role debut as Cavaradossi (as we discussed with him here). The German tenor famously cuts an unusually handsome figure on the stage and the voice – burnished and baritonal (with more than a hint of Giuseppe Giacomini's dark timbre) – is a magnificent instrument. His 'Recondita armonia' provided the first of many thrilling top notes and his contributions in the love duet, despite his wanting at one point to linger more than Pappano was willing to allow, were distinguished. In 'E lucevan le stelle', he showed an admirable desire to produce a feeling of introspection and intimacy, even if some of the sotto voce effects he employed were at the expense of the melodic line. In his interpretation of this role, the link between vocal and dramatic elements didn't always seem totally secure, and some of the big notes, thrilling though they were, came across as calculated rather than spontaneous – although in the case of 'Vitorria!', the fault is partly Puccini's own for making the temptation too great for singers with this kind of vocal ability. However, Kaufmann only added to his reputation in this performance: a debut in a role which he is likely to make his own as it becomes a staple in his repertory.

Unfortunately, the interpretative options open to Paolo Gavanelli as Scarpia were restricted by the production. Despite the straggly long hair and liquorice-allsorts waistcoat, though, his was a thoroughly three-dimensional characterisation. There were times when the voice, with its characteristic, fast vibrato, sounded just a little too small for the role, but elsewhere his subtle and beautifully shaded way with his native Italian, and willingness to sing quietly, brought enormous benefits. Poalo Gavanelli as Scarpia  (Photo: Catherine Ashmore)At the start of the 'Te Deum', delivered piano, the attention to detail of Pappano's conducting really seemed finally to have found correlative on the stage.

In the Second Act, the floor of Scarpia's study is strewn with books, employed more as candlestick stands than anything else; a vast bookshelf to the left is all but empty, the books in the centre later revealed as false, concealing the entrance to the secret room where Cavaradossi is tortured. It's another clear demonstration of Scarpia's thuggish character, providing a metaphor for his attitude to knowledge – what little he has he employs ruthlessly for his own ends. However, Gavanelli's portrayal consistently made him come across as much more than a mere pantomime villain. It was his scenes with Tosca in the Second Act, too, where Pappano's conducting started to achieve real dramatic intensity.

Apart from its specific characterisation of Scarpia, the production had little to say about the work. Both the First and Second Acts start in unnecessarily gloomy darkness. Most of Act One is set away from the main body of the church in a side chapel down some stairs. Cavaradossi's painting – more a large fresco – is visible to the audience but positioned in such a way that Tosca has to contrive to reposition herself right at the front of the stage before she herself can see the likeness of her supposed rival, something not achieved terribly convincingly here. During the 'Te Deum', Scarpia remains downstairs while the congregation is positioned on the upper level. It is a nice way of distinguishing between the very different declarations we were listening to but, for me, it actually undermined the tension between the sacred and profane that gives the scene its potency.

In Paul Brown's designs, the sets for the first two acts are lavishly detailed and realistic, so the bleak, bare and minimalist design for the final act comes as something of a surprise. Perspective is all but disposed with and there's no sign of St. Peter's in the distance; at the act's opening, one of the soldiers on guard squats in his underwear, washing himself with water from a bucket. This apparent aesthetic inconsistency did nothing to help the performance and although Tosca Act Three  (Photo: Catherine Ashmore)the final act was admirably delivered, I found it difficult not to find in this scenic plainness an analogue for the fact that the drama was less engaging now without Gavanelli's Scarpia.

Of the rest of the cast, Kostas Smoriginas (a Jette Parker Young Artist) was a rich-voiced and engaging Angelotti. And although one has to wonder why the Royal Opera can't come up with a home-grown Sacristan, Enrico Fissore was excellent - if occasionally a little blustery - and managed manfully to stop his jangling keys from producing too great a disturbance. As Spoletta, Hubert Francis (a former Young Artists) captured just the right mixture of menace and sycophantic amorality.

As the run progresses, I can see the many fine elements of this revival coming better into alignment. However, on this first night, although there was some fine acting and a lot of vocal and orchestral quality on show, the overall effect fell short of being theatrically compelling.

By Hugo Shirley