Puccini: Tosca

Royal Opera

Royal Opera House, 9 June 2011 3 stars

The cast taking on eight June performances for this latest revival of Tosca suffer, even before one steps into the Royal Opera House, from comparison with the starry trio of Gheorghiu, Kaufmann and Terfel, which forms the line-up for a couple of performances in July.

There's a similar pair of for-two-nights-only appearances from Netrebko and Grigolo planned within a long run of La Traviata next January, I notice, and I'm not sure it represents an entirely healthy casting strategy.

Nevertheless, on this occasion Martina Serafin and Marcello Giordani, as Tosca and Cavaradossi, didn't leave one feeling that short-changed—vocally, at least.

The same, alas, cannot be said for Juha Uusitalo's tired-sounding and underpowered Scarpia. And the Finnish bass-baritone, making a rather belated – arguably too belated – Royal Opera debut, left a fatal gap in the heart of the performance.

Either side of him Serafin and Giordani delivered the goods, but couldn't bridge that gap. Serafin, in particular, made a very strong impression. Viennese by birth, she has a string of Marschallins and Elsas to her credit. This obviously demonstrates a certain flexibility of repertoire, but the voice itself has a real, old-fashioned Italianate quality to it. Vibrant, powerful and focussed, it can start to turn in the higher register – there was a hint of curdle at the summit of 'Vissi d'arte' – and I wished occasionally for a bit more generosity in the phrases. However, this was the sort of high-quality singing, matched with a decent dramatic temperament, that Covent Garden has heard all too rarely in this role over the last few years.

Giordani is more of a known quantity, and his Cavaradossi retains the virtues familiar from his 2009 appearances in the role. Chief among these is a top of the voice that is gloriously free and ringing. And he knows it. But there's some style to his singing, too, albeit of the rather old-school Italian variety, which brings with it the standard dramatic drawbacks. The quality of the voice in the middle range is less impressive, and there's certainly none of Kaufmann's smoky, baritonal timbre; but he's a generous performer.

As a pair, he and Serafin went through the acting motions in the best Tosca tradition, and the conventional feel to their duets was reassuring in a way. Both struggled, however, to bring their confrontations with Uusitalo to life. And without those confrontations catching fire, the whole show felt somewhat tepid.

The smaller roles also came across as bizarrely over-acted in comparison: Lukas Jakobski's wild Angelotti seemed to be angling for an Oscar, while Jeremy White overdid the blundering bluster as the sacristan.

Jonathan Kent's production, too, is beginning to lose what edge it had over the scenic dinosaurs that have gradually become extinct over the last decade or so.

It's competently revived by Duncan MacFarland, and there are still some nice touches – the vast book shelves in Scarpia's study, for example, empty but for the fake tomes that hide a secret door – but, without sharply defined acting, it's started to morph into a passive, decorative backdrop.

Apart, that is, from the final act, which still strikes me as incongruously abstract when compared with exaggerated grandeur of the previous two. There's no sight of the domes from which the distant sound of bells is supposed to emanate, just a set of posts for executions, the battlement wall swerving off into the distance, and the vast wing of an angel hanging over the stage.

In the pit, Antonio Pappano produced a characteristically detailed and driven account of the score, and the orchestra played extremely well for him – and showed great communal presence of mind in covering up shaky moment from Uusitalo in the 'Te Deum'.

Even Pappano couldn't quite make the whole thing cohere into a convincing dramatic whole, though. The combined charisma of the starry trio taking over in July might lift the show – and Terfel's Scarpia will certainly restore its dramatic balance. Those performances will be filmed for later cinema relay, but it seems a shame that only a lucky few will get to see them live.

By Hugo Shirley

Photos © Catherine Ashmore/ROH