Puccini: Tosca

The Royal Opera

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 24 July 2009 4 stars

Bryn TerfelThis final performance of the Royal Opera's 2008-09 season brought to the stage Nelly Miricioiu, the second of two Romanian sopranos to replace an ailing Deborah Voigt in the title role of Puccini's Tosca. Miricioiu's experience in this part speaks for itself: she appeared in the 1996, 2001 and 2004 revivals of the previous production and, if I'm not wrong, had now become the only person to have played Tosca in both stagings.

Miricioiu's return to Covent Garden was both unexpected and welcome. Having not appeared there in nearly half a decade, it looked like the door was forever closed, but if there were one or two moments where the orchestra overwhelmed her and the costumes for Jonathan Kent's production really didn't suit her (indeed they don't really seem to suit anyone who's done the production so far), she remains an electrifying actress. By far the most engaged performer onstage, Miricioiu brought colour and life to the part, energising a rather perfunctory staging and adding psychological detail at every turn.

The voice was at its best in Act 2, where the encounter with Scarpia was so powerful on Miricioiu's part that it was easy to see why Tosca was the one to emerge from the room alive. The rendition of 'Vissi d'arte' was beautifully delivered, and yet was woven more tautly into the drama than is the case when other sopranos step out of character and deliver it as a showpiece; here, the almost fiery delivery meant that Kent's direction to have Scarpia applaud the aria after the audience's response did not draw the cheap laugh that had irritated on previous outings of the production. One of Miricioiu's specialities is vocal colour, and many of the highlights of the night were when she delivered semi-parlando, or indeed the completely spoken line at the end of Act 2. Overall, the way she reached out to the audience and matched each word and moment with a different gesture or thought was absolutely gripping, and it would be nice to see her back in a different role.

It has to be said that next to Miricioiu, Marcello Giordani gave a very different kind of performance as Cavaradossi. I've never heard him sing more stupendously, absolutely raising the rafters when belting out the top notes, most conspicuously in Act 2's 'Vittoria!'. But for me, it was also an unnuanced performance for the first two acts, lacking depth of interpretation in the quieter moments, and it was only in Act 3 that Giordani really scaled the voice down more sensitively when singing with Miricioiu.

I've never found that the role of Scarpia really suits Bryn Terfel, and nothing has changed for me here. The freshness of his singing was impeccable and it's easy to see why this is a crowd-pleasing performance, but the long, greasy wig and animalistic portrayal of the character in this production – totally ignoring the fact that Scarpia is a gentleman and a figure in Rome society – leaves him with little to do but stride across the stage and be physically violent. It would be interesting to see Terfel sing the role in a production that allowed him to vary the characterisation a little more, because the part lies extremely well for him vocally.

It was noticeable that the smaller roles were uniformly well sung, while the conducting of Jacques Lacombe drew some of the most beautiful playing from the ROH orchestra I've heard all season. There was not a single cracked note from the brass section in this notoriously challenging score, and Lacombe created an exquisitely balanced performance from the orchestra whilst never allowing them to descend into melodramatic clichés. In all, it was an exciting way to finish the season, and with a little more subtlety it could have been even more so.

By Dominic McHugh

Photos credits: Catherine Ashmore


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