Royal Opera

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 3 July 2007 4 stars


After the damp squib of its unveiling last June, with a disappointing stage debut from Angela Gheorghiu in the title role, Jonathan Kent's production of Puccini's Tosca has really come into its own in this first revival.

Gone is the unconvincingly virginal white gown (which resembled a wedding dress) that Gheorghiu wore in Act Two, to be replaced by a less cumbersome grey costume. Otherwise, none of the major details have changed, but the overall direction seems more fluent and taut, in keeping with the dramatic immediacy of the opera.

Somehow, the whole thing is more gripping, human and realistic than before. The comic scenes in the first act are brought to the fore, with the badinage between Tosca and Cavaradossi over the colour of the eyes of the woman in the portrait he is painting being delivered with spontaneity, and the business with the Sacristan and the altar boys is now appropriately comic rather than caricaturish. Puccini learnt the device of making operatic tragedy darker by contrasting it with lighter music from Verdi - think of the opening of Rigoletto or La traviata - and this performance executed the technique more successfully than I have heard on the stage before now.

However, what really sets this revival alight is the sheer passion of the performers. The love scenes in Act One are sharply contrasted with the sinister exchange between Tosca and Scarpia in Act Two, where the energy levels are much higher than when the production was new. The staging of the first-act Te Deum really worked this time, because the public spectacle of the religious ceremony was more ostentatious, thereby highlighting the juxtaposition with Scarpia's expression of lust in the chapel below. The dominating empty bookshelves of Scarpia's office suggest someone who is trying to be a gentleman of learning but is too obsessed with his animalistic passions to complete the fašade of his assumed gentility. Tosca's murder of him is far more credibly staged this time around, and the darkness of the final act is a suitably bewitching background for the inevitable but heart-rending tragedy.

A more visceral, vital reading of Tosca could not be imagined than that offered by Mikko Franck in his Royal Opera debut. From first to last, this was an ideally paced and dramatically urgent account of Puccini's tight score. Not only were the obvious large gestures (such as the opening bars and the Scarpia-Tosca duet in Act Two) rendered by the ROH Orchestra with unleashed energy and vigour, but there was refinement in their playing, too. In particular, it was a pleasure to hear the horns playing with such perfect intonation and clarity in the opening gesture of Act Three (the foreshadowing of the a cappella section of the duet 'O dolci mani'). Franck's ability as an accompanist is remarkable: Salvatore Licitra, the tenor playing Cavaradossi, was constantly wayward with his timing, but the sensitive relationship between conductor and orchestra meant that this was almost always covered up. If there was one problem, it was that Franck did not always rein in the orchestra at the climaxes, so that the voices were occasionally drowned out (something that never happened under Antonio Pappano last year). But on the whole, this was a hugely impressive house debut, and his return in November to conduct L'elisir d'amore will be all the more hotly anticipated.

Franck's conducting was one of the two remarkable aspects of the performance. The other was the Tosca of Violeta Urmana. She is easily the most compelling singer to take this role since Catherine Malfitano's greatest performances as Tosca a decade ago, except that Urmana is a much more able singer. There was much to admire in her rendition. For one thing, most of the part lies perfectly for her vocally. Just as mezzo-sopranos of the past (such as Grace Bumbry and Shirley Verrett) found that the role sits well for a singer with a strong middle register, Urmana (who initially sang mezzo roles) brings an exceptional richness of tone to the often conversational recitative style of the opera, especially in the middle act. 'Vissi d'arte' deservedly drew rapturous applause, and all the lyrical moments were deftly phrased, despite the occasional clipped high note.

But what truly thrilled was her potent acting. A dominant presence on the stage, Urmana reminded us why the opera is called Tosca. Whereas I could not believe for a moment that La Gheorghiu could possibly overpower Bryn Terfel in the original cast, Urmana is an actress of such stature that her forceful murder of Scarpia, stabbing him several times, was shockingly vivid. After the murder, she calmly placed the iconic candles on either side of Scarpia's body, then shuddered with the horror of her act before rushing out on hearing the sound of the offstage drums anticipating her lover's execution. It was an exhilarating moment and a masterclass in how to deal with this difficult but important scene of acting rather than singing.

Against such a formidable presence it was perhaps inevitable that the others in the cast would pale in comparison. However, I was pleased to discover that both of the other principal singers were in better vocal condition than the last time they appeared at the house.

In particular, Italian tenor Salvatore Licitra must have been eating Weetabix for breakfast, for this was a far more powerful performance than his turn in the ill-fated La forza del Destino a few years back. While there are immense problems with his ability to stay in tempo, he captured the style and the sound of Cavaradossi's music rather well, even if he was no replacement for Marcelo Alvarez last year.

Both Licitra and Mark Delavan (as Scarpia) were a bit bland on the acting front, especially in Act One, and I felt that Delavan's fondling of one of Tosca's hair ribbons in the first act was limp rather than lustful. However, he made much of the psychological shifts and turns in Act Two, and rose to the vocal challenges as well; he was truly domineering when torturing Cavaradossi.

It's good to see Robin Leggate back as Spoletta, a strong acting counterpoint to Delavan's Scarpia in the second act, while Carlo Cigni (Angelotti) and Enrico Fissore (Sacristan) sang well enough, if without distinction. Krzysztof Szumanski, a Royal Opera Young Artist, was the superb Sciarrone.

In all, this is an excellent revival of the Puccini favourite.

By Dominic McHugh