Jonathan Kent’s dour production of Tosca returns to the Covent Garden stage for a long repertory-type run, some 12 performances over six weeks. Singers, conductors, and even revival directors will come and go over that period, repopulating this fairly generic staging as they do so. It is the kind of production that sits in the background, allowing the three leads the space to conjure up the magic between them. Sadly, only one of the main singers this evening was up to the task, Roberto Alagna completely stealing the show as Cavaradossi. Otherwise, there wasn’t much to enjoy in this performance, which was sung and conducted without conviction.
Visually, this is a surprisingly dark and gloomy production. The designs, by Paul Brown, are all muted shades and low lighting. Most of the action takes place near the front of the stage, and the sets for the first two acts recede into shadows and darkness closely behind. The chapel stetting for Act I is opulent, a two level setup focused around a double stairwell that surrounds the Madonna statue at the centre. Cavaradossi’s mural is a huge column dominating the left of the stage. In the second act, Scarpia’s lair is a commandeered library, the walls all wooden panelling and empty bookcases. Here, a huge wooden statue sits centre stage as the focus of the set. And for Act III, we have the roof of the Castel Sant’Angelo, with a circular hole in the floor where the stairs rise, and a sloping, curved wall around the back – no guesses what that’s for.
After a slightly shaky start, Alagna soon found his feet. His voice is ideal for this music, especially in the character and elegance that he can bring, even to the loudest and highest passages. Some great performances from the supporting cast in this first act, particularly Jeremy White as the officious Sacristan and Michel de Souza as the shady Angelotti. But things started to go downhill with the appearance of Oksana Dyka as Tosca. Dyka is Ukrainian and has a typically Slavic approach to tone production and phrasing. Everything is very definite and emphatic. Most of the notes are there, although there were a few tuning problems, and she seems comfortable in the top register. In her duets with Alagna, it was clear that Dyka had the power and focus to balance both him and the orchestra. She has quite an abrasive tone though, which quickly becomes wearing. And there is a distinct lack of nuance to her phrasing.
Marco Vratogna was also disappointing as Scarpia. He doesn’t have the projection for the role and was often drowned out by the orchestra, especially in the Act I finale. He doesn’t have the sense of menace that the role requires either. Jonathan Kent choreographs his Act I entrance beautifully, having him appear at the top of the stairway to dominate the proceedings from above. But even here, it was clear that he wasn’t able to hold the stage or to project the sense of authority required.
In fact, there was very little convincing acting at all. The singers were generally quite static, and most of the interactions between them were staid. Visually, the Act I finale was impressive, the Te Deum celebration taking place at the top of the stage and atmospherically lit to contrast it with the more sinister and psychological goings-on at the front of the stage. The second act was more problematic. The torture scene, which plays out as a power dynamic between Tosca and Scarpia, was let down by the poor acting of both singers, neither of whom could make a convincing case here. Act III fared better, mainly for the contribution of Alagna, whose presence onstage seemed to raise Dyka’s game. Kent’s staging of this last act is quite straightforward, and the clear, uncomplicated setting allows for more dramatic focus than had been apparent in the previous acts.
Conductor Oleg Caetani led a proficient musical performance, but one that was as generic as the production. A few ragged entries from the orchestra came as a surprise, but the singers got the attention from him that they needed. His wasn’t a very dynamic reading though, and he seemed to make little effort to shape the phrases or drive the climaxes.
Not a promising start, then, to this long-running revival. The Royal Opera’s policy here seems to be to keep the production afloat with at least one world-class performer (Thomas Hampson was originally billed as Scarpia but cancelled due to illness), but that’s not really enough for an opera like this that relies so much on the singing and acting talents of all three leads. Bryn Terfel will be returning to the production later in the run to sing Scarpia, and he should be worth catching. Until then, its only redeeming feature is the ever-dependable Cavaradossi of Roberto Alagna.
(Photos: Catherine Ashmore)