While Maria Callas is surely the soprano most readily associated with the character of Tosca, in the last two decades another figure has become indelibly linked with Puccini’s fiery heroine. Since appearing in the Benoit Jacquot film of the opera in 2000, the Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu has been for many opera enthusiasts the Tosca of recent times, and although that version undoubtedly has its flaws, Gheorghiu’s singing is not among them. I was fortunate enough to see her in the role at the Royal Opera House in a then-new production by Jonathan Kent back in 2006; and many readers will also have seen her in this production in 2011 (which was televised on BBC and is available on DVD and Blu Ray), where Gheorghiu was joined by Jonas Kaufmann and Bryn Terfel to form a well-nigh perfect trio of principals. This same, highly acclaimed production (with which Kent made his Royal Opera debut) is currently being revived for the seventh time, though with a less starry cast. Joining Gheorghiu in the lead male roles last night as Mario Cavaradossi and Baron Scarpia were tenor Riccardo Massi and baritone Samuel Youn.
Act I got off to a good start, though Massi took a little while to warm up, sounding rather underpowered after Donald Maxwell’s rich-toned Sacristan and Yuriy Yurchuk’s agitated Angelotti. If this were a recording I’d boost Massi’s microphone by a decibel or two, but he improved slightly as the act progressed, and was vocally well matched to Gheorghiu. There was no sense of strain at either end of his vocal range, top notes were beautifully controlled, and towards the end of “Recondita armonia” he didn’t take a breath between the phrases “il mio solo pensiero / ah! il mio sol pensier sei tu!” – I’ve never heard a tenor do this before. Nor had I heard Puccini’s orchestration sound so alive: conductor Emmanuel Villaume clearly relishes this score, and I loved noticing effects spring out from the orchestral pit with such vitality, such as the sweeping, rising glissandi in the violins to accompany the Sacristan at the very opening.
Gheorghiu sounded as good as ever in terms of vocal production. The only slight cause for concern I had was her breathing in this first act: her breath control was generally fine, but on several occasions intakes of breaths sounded more like gasps. She made up for these with such heart-breaking, pianissimo singing for “È tanto buona” (referring to the Madonna). One other aspect that disturbed the flow of the music occurred when Tosca was reminiscing about the house she and Mario used to live in: the ensemble with the orchestra had a rather nasty wobble for several bars, though fortunately Villaume managed to get things back on track fairly quickly.
Finally, it was time for Scarpia to make his entrance, and what an entrance Samuel Youn made. Crafting a deep, threating baritone, the South Korean’s velvety tones benefitted from such well-supported projection that Villaume could allow the menacing trombones that accompany Scarpia in this act to let rip, and Youn could still be heard. Even with Gheorghiu present, Youn’s Scarpia dominated the stage, and the act’s conclusion was remarkably powerful. I say ‘remarkably’ because, at the risk of incurring the wrath of some readers, I’ve never been entirely convinced by the use of the chorus in Tosca. It’s not that I dislike the “Te Deum” at the end of Act I, but it just seems somewhat superfluous – an awful lot of effort and expense for a scene which does little for the narrative (Puccini could present Scarpia’s religious hypocrisy through far less extravagant means). But Youn’s magnetic performance, coupled with the Royal Opera Chorus and Orchestra on top form made for a thrilling conclusion, Villaume milking the melodrama of the score for all its worth, and demonstrating a clear command of this mass of performers.
Act II continued to bring out the best from Youn, Gheorghiu and the orchestra. Youn was excellent at capturing the ruthless and lecherous characteristics of Scarpia here, as well as conveying the thrill he gets from Mario’s torture. As well as the sheer vocal power he demonstrated throughout this act, his acting also contributed to a truly terrifying portrayal of this character, from his fierce slamming on the table to his wicked (though never exaggerated) laugh. The violent, sexual tension between Tosca and Scarpia in this central act was palpable. Gheorghiu and Youn were well matched: she brought her fiery passion; he his dominating power. They were superbly supported by the orchestra: the tense repeated chords in the strings during Scarpia’s brief interrogation of Hubert Francis’ appropriately nasal Spoletta enhanced the tension of this scene.
Another orchestral detail of note was the exquisitely soft clarinets that faded to nothing before “Vissi d’arte”: a few seconds of absolute silence followed before the iconic aria began. Was it an unqualified triumph? Not quite. The opening phrases sounded unsettled, again because of ensemble problems between Gheorghiu and the orchestra and this seemed to be caused by Gheorghiu rushing these phrases – there were no ensemble issues with any of the other singers throughout the opera. Further on in the aria, she used an excessive amount of rubato, this time forcing Villaume and the orchestra to slow down significantly. The singing itself was wonderful: the top B flat (“Signor”) was beautifully delivered, though the following A flat-G wasn’t as tenderly placed as I’ve heard from her before. Nevertheless, the voice remains in excellent shape, and purely in terms of the quality of sound, I’d be hard pressed to find much difference between this and the Gheorghiu in the 2000 Jacquot film.
Unfortunately, the raw passion the singers brought to Act II was decidedly absent in the following act, and I have to say I was rather disappointed by Massi’s performance in this, especially after such a heated duelling-duet between Gheorghiu and Youn. “E lucevan le stelle” was given an ideal instrumental introduction: the quartet of cellists nostalgically recalling Tosca and Mario’s happier times of Act I played with such warmth, such sensitivity, and the handover to the solo clarinet to introduce the aria was just seamless – a truly magical moment. It was a shame, then, that Massi made so little of his own music. All the notes were there, including the climaxes, intonation was secure, and the ensemble with the orchestra was fine, but it was just so underwhelming and lacking in passion, both vocally and visually. The challenge Puccini sets the tenor in Act III is to bring heartfelt emotion at the end of “E lucevan le stelle” and then to contrast this with “O dolci mani”, which follows shortly afterwards and requires delicacy and gentleness. The latter fared better, but only because Massi sang it in much the same way he had sung the former, and I would have enjoyed a much greater range of vocal colour.
So, should you go to see this production, even if you’ve attended one or more of its six previous incarnations? Yes, for three reasons: first, to hear what was for me one of the most detailed readings of Puccini’s orchestral writing in this score; second, to witness a highly accomplished Royal Opera debut from Samuel Youn, certainly a name to look out for in the near future; and finally, for Tosca herself. Despite the occasional gasps of breath and liberties taken with rubato, sixteen years on there’s still no soprano alive I’d rather see or hear in this role. Gheorghiu reigns supreme.
(Photos : Catherine Ashmore)