This is Puccini spectacle at its height, but the emotional heart seems to have wandered.
Jonathon Kent’s Tosca is plush, detailed and complex, making the running time of over three hours fly by. This revival production, led by Bryn Terfel, Kristine Opolais and Vittorio Grigòlo, does not shy away from the darkness of the plot, however, is does disallow the audience access to the emotional turmoil onstage. Whilst the sets, lighting design and costuming are all beautiful, if sometimes a little unruly, it seems the musicianship is the highlight.
Tosca, despite its presentation of political unrest, is essentially a story of young love thwarted by hypocritical and sadistic power. Artist Mario Cavaradossi and singer Floria Tosca are the romantic heart of the opera and, unlike some of Puccini’s other romances, they are human. The libretto affords the couple their idiosyncrasies and foibles. Neither, and especially Tosca herself, is perfect and nor does it feel like her professional success or desirability must be punished. The intervention of Baron Scarpia into their lives is multifaceted; he tortures and condemns Cavaradossi to death in order to persuade Tosca to betray the revolutionary her lover was hiding and ultimately convincing her to sleep with Scarpia in order to prevent Cavaradossi's death. This is Puccini, however, so don’t expect Tosca to win, although she does succeed more than most of the composer’s heroines.
Paul Brown’s design moves the melodrama from a complicit church, to Scarpia’s oppressive gothic apartment and finally to open battlements. Whilst the church and apartment are multi-layered and intricate, the sparseness and timelessness of the battlements adds a romanticism and hope to the final Act’s inevitable tragedy. The staging of Tosca’s death, leaping from the battlements, however, is pushed so far upstage by the set that it loses some of its power. The lighting design by Mark Henderson enhances the sets, especially in Act II, creating a shadowy world of uncertainty and threat otherwise largely missing from the staging.
In this production, however, a spark is missing. The audience is never quite convinced of Cavaradossi and Tosca’s relationship, making the tragic conclusion and much of the drama of second and third Acts less engaging than they potentially could be. The tenor’s romancing of the audience seemed more impassioned than the attention he pays Tosca. His voice, however, is incredible. Opolais’ performance is unfortunately hampered by some directorial decisions that reduce the threat Tosca experiences and leaves the soprano unnecessarily exposed. The torture scene in Act II is especially difficult as the brutality occurs unseen and (mostly) silently. Without a tangible threat, the scene is disjointed and Tosca’s responses lack cause. Musically, however, the pair cannot be faulted. Under Alexander Joel, the music is utterly engaging throughout.
Bryn Terfel’s skill, however, manages to skew the audience’s loyalties. The thoroughly unpleasant Chief of Police Scarpia openly states that his idea of a perfect evening is assaulting a resistant woman and proceeds in an attempt to do so. Unfortunately, in a production where the heroes are emotionally distant, the brutal honesty of desire causes the audience to latch on to the character whom they may despise, but who is emotionally true. Terfel’s voice, of course, is unparalleled and he has a talent for playing the despicable human, without claiming the character is anything but horrific (Sweeney Todd, I’m looking at you). His skill is so great that in this production it attracts all, unbalancing the audience’s reaction to developing drama.
This revival has many skilful moments and the musicianship from the soloists, extended chorus and orchestra are remarkable. It is unfortunate, therefore, that the staging is somewhat off-balance.
Tosca runs until the 20th June, for tickets and information click here.