In a series of high profile cancellations that have dogged the Royal Opera of late, the glamorous and controversial American soprano Deborah Voigt was forced to disappoint many by withdrawing from this revival of Puccini's Tosca with just a short time to go before the opening night. Fortunately, as with other instances where replacements have had to be found at Covent Garden in recent weeks, the audience did not have to settle for second best. Angela Gheorghiu, one of opera's biggest names, and perhaps the most famous and gifted soprano currently associated with the role of Tosca, was available for the opening night and two further performances.
Not having heard Gheorghiu as Tosca before, I must confess to having been sceptical of her ability to convince in a role more usually tackled by spinto sopranos or dramatic voices like that of Voigt. Recordings of live performances from recent seasons at La Scala and the Met indicated that Gheorghiu was no longer at the height of her powers, and much has been said about her lack of volume, particularly in the middle and lower reaches of her instrument. It was a delight, therefore, to hear from her very first entrance that either the issues have been addressed, or they did not exist in the first place. Her singing was so assured that one was never aware of the process, only the highly expressive results. Her sound filled the house without apparent effort, either in the middle of her middle voice during the richly orchestrated Act I love duet, or the highly dramatic outbursts on top notes in the Act II torture scene. Her complete freedom from technical issues allowed her to phrase instinctively and with great style, producing a multitude of beautiful colours, particularly when singing piano.
Dramatically, Gheorghiu was also extremely impressive. She entered as a playful young woman, very much in love. All the jealousy was toned down and dealt with lightly so that it seemed more like a ruse to get kisses from Cavaradossi, rather than the unattractive character flaw as which it usually come across. That Gheorghiu was able to succeed with this approach meant that one was not forced to wonder, as is often the case, why Cavaradossi puts up with her. The ease and naturalness of their love, when set up in this way, made one care more deeply for Tosca when she was tricked by Scarpia before the Te Deum and during her Act II ordeal, and it also made Tosca's journey to the more human woman of Act III, stripped of vanity and other Diva trappings, less of a distance. Between resolving issues of characterisation that even Callas said she struggled with, and dominating all the vocal challenges of this difficult part, Gheorghiu's Tosca was as fine a role assumption as one could hope to experience today.
In spite of the short rehearsal period Gheorghiu will have had, some of the credit for her excellent portrayal is surely due to the director of this revival of Jonathan Kent's production, Stephen Barlow, because it seems to be a hallmark of the performances from the entire cast. Bryn Terfel managed to delineate Scarpia's whole character with one gesture towards a child in the church at his very first entrance. Here, instantly manifest, was the Sicilian chief of police, an outsider in Rome, who recognised a long time ago that it was pointless to try to ingratiate himself with the people, and who achieved authority by reveling in the repulsion and fear he inspired in others. The result was utterly magnetic, and it afforded him an easy, appropriate dominance of each scene in which he appeared. In Act II, his portrayal was entirely consistent with the text, which meant that he didn't shirk presenting himself as a sexual sadist. In never attempting to be falsely seductive towards Tosca, he came across as totally credible and very strong. Vocally, the role fits Terfel like a glove, and it allowed him to display sinuous, soft legato in his sarcastic exchanges in Act II, as well as the full heft of his considerable volume in the Te Deum and the Act II climaxes.
Marcello Giordani, as Cavaradossi, gelled very well with Terfel and Gheorghiu. He interacted beautifully as Tosca's lover, yielding to her but also knowing how to handle her when he had to free himself to deal with the political matters on his mind. His defiant Voltaireian of Act II was exciting, and in Act III, as the condemned man who has never loved life so much, he was deeply moving. Giordani has been seen infrequently at the Royal Opera since his debut in 1995 which is a shame, because tenors of his caliber are few and far between. He has a robust voice with easy, thrilling top notes, but he was also capable of some beautiful pianissimo phrases in Act III, making for a complete and satisfying performance of this great tenor role.
The conductor, Jacques Lacombe, was making his Royal Opera debut, and it was an auspicious one. His tempi were broad with a grand romantic sweep which made for a traditional Tosca in the best sense of the word. The orchestral timbre was bright and full, and if he was holding the players back to allow the voices to come across in certain places, he did so with the kind of deft artistry that retained the full colour and impact of the score, making one unaware it was happening.
The production remains pleasing, with imposing set designs by Paul Brown and impressive lighting effects by Mark Henderson, such as the shafts of sun-light entering from suggested high windows in Sant'Andrea della Valle, and the stars referred to by Cavaradossi above the Castel Sant'Angelo. Completing a first class audience experience, the Royal Opera chorus was on lively form, and the smaller roles were all excellently taken, particularly Jeremy White's vivid Sacristan.
It is very rare for all the many and various elements which go into an operatic performance to come together with such consistent high quality, but it is an unbeatable night out when it happens. The Royal Opera have such a success on their hands, which is all the more remarkable for being the third event in recent weeks to become a significant success in spite of major cast changes at short notice.
By John Woods
Photos credits: Catherine Ashmore