Opera Review: Tosca Proves That Monoliths Aren't Just For Sci-Fi

Tosca, Royal Opera House ★★★★☆

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Opera Review: Tosca Proves That Monoliths Aren't Just For Sci-Fi Tosca, Royal Opera House 4
© ROH, Catherine Ashmore

The Royal Opera's new rendition of the Puccini classic doesn't take chances on outlandish characterisations or anachronisms, preferring to bet on monumental set pieces that will awe traditional fans and performances that are musically tone perfect if not always stirring. The substantial investment required for a Covent Garden opera ticket should entitle you to a bold if not breathtaking production, that properly blasts the stalls and tiered balconies of the fabulously ornate main hall. However, it sometimes feels as though the audience for this Tosca is applauding as much for the institution of the Royal Opera as for the performances themselves.

A troubling example is the nominally fiery, jealous Tosca, the heroine on whose rages the whole work turns, sung with skill by Kristine Opolais. She turns up the flame in the second act as she takes on a the corrupt police commander Scarpia, a pious hypocrite of a heavy who offers holy water to the objects of his fancies. He has Tosca's lover arrested in order to entrap her in a role, again, sung masterfully by Welsh bass-baritone-bass Bryn Terfel. Yet his endeavours to dominate both his victim and her lover in a vast, nightmarish library setting, in which bookcases conceal torture chambers, somehow conveys neither passion nor menace.

© ROH, Catherine Ashmore

Lovers of old-school epic Italian aria will still cheer Jonathan Kent's new staging the classic — as indeed they did on opening night. Musically, it's a brassy, bold outing led by a veteran soprano. Her role certainly comes with challenges: Tosca is meant to embrace both ardor and morality, to be explosive and a devout Catholic, deeply naive about the vast corruption of the Roman papal state. But her star-crossed bohemian lover, Cavaradossi, sung with verve by Vittorio Grigolo, serves up a more thoughtful, nuanced character. This simple painter, with no particular religious bent, is given to thoughtful insights on the mission of art and the blend of dark and light sides of the Mary Magdalene fresco he is working on for the church.

The imbalance of character depth is hardly surprising in a work from 1900 adapted from a popular French play of the time. Women's roles then were rarely complex, of course, and Tosca's fate is determined almost wholly by her lover, the fugitive he's trying to shelter — Michael Mofidian's Angelotti — and the loathsome police commander Scarpia.

The Tosca story, billed for the last century as a thriller in which an evil predator tries to seduce a starlet while killing off her lover, promises grit, tension and intrigue. This production instead focuses on soaring sets by Paul Brown and lustrous lighting by Mark Henderson, whose work is indeed staggering. And the lyrical, grand orchestration of Alexander Joel underscores the action, helping things along mightily. But does this production live up to the 70 year-plus tradition of Royal Opera greats? From Tosca's opening scene, in which the fugitive Angelotti, supposedly on the run for his life, casually descends into his chapel hideout while singing out relief at his narrow escape, it seems more likely we're mainly in for a night of superb vocals.

Tosca, Royal Opera House, Bow Street, WC2E 9DD, from £103. Until 20 June.

Last Updated 29 May 2019