It is thirteen years since Jonathan Kent’s production of Tosca took over from Zefirelli’s, and with many revivals since, Kent’s is acquiring venerable status. The apparatus of State and Church is there to oppress, the former nakedly manipulating the latter, and Paul Brown’s monumental sets are similarly overwhelming. The huge wing (of a Roman eagle?) floating above the action in Acts One and Three is the only non-realist element in an otherwise ultra-traditional design, although the huge statue of St Michael that dominates Scarpia’s sharply observed makeshift office trashing a grand salon in the Palazzo Farnese is almost in the same area.
The staging of the Te Deum is one of the best going, although it is odd that the mitred (wrong) bishop gives Benediction to an imagined congregation in Sant’Andrea at the back of the stage, while the choir sings the Te Deum facing us. Still in the Attavanti chapel, there is a Tosca staging in which Scarpia washes his face in a holy water stoup; here Cavaradossi runs holy water through his hair to make himself even more alluring to her. The diva’s great curtain of a gown in Act Two provides no end of imperious flouncing potential, and the way Bryn Terfel’s Scarpia daintily pushes it out of way with his foot is a mini-mastertouch and somehow heightens his lethal priapism. And would Tosca have been allowed to witness the firing squad at work, unless it was a part of Scarpia’s plan?
Terfel played Scarpia in the first run, and he turns the staging round his little finger. Over a decade later, his menace may be more economically applied but it is every bit as deadly and commanding – and in Act Two his entrapment of Tosca has an almost stately air of possession and degradation about it. He is so convincing in the role that it is profoundly shocking when he starts unbuttoning his waistcoat, prior, as he intends, to having his way. Some of the juice in his lower voice isn’t as generous as it was, but volume, higher tone and the way he works the text are all magnificent. And that’s before you take in a wealth of detail to do with stillness, facial expression, even eyebrows. Terfel is astonishing.
Kristine Opolais conveys Floria Tosca’s coquettishness and insecurity in Act One in a way that’s both familiar and touching, and then she makes Tosca’s diva status and courage entirely credible in the Second. Gesture and movement are high-octane drama-queen stuff and she makes it all compelling to see and hear. Best of all, as Tosca runs out of options, is the way in which Opolais distils the drama down to a ‘Vissi d’arte’ of great beauty – reminding you that it’s a miracle the opera is built on four big if brief solo numbers – and even greater insight into the strengths and vagaries of Tosca’s character. It helps that she looks stunning and regal.
Vittorio Grigolo is making his Royal Opera debut as Cavaradossi, and he spares nothing in tenor-superstardom. A sweeter middle voice would clinch an otherwise rhapsodic ‘Recondita armonia’, but the earth is still moving after his heroic, full-blast cries of “Vittoria”. Sometimes the lifts to the top of his voice are laborious, and there are some arbitrary bursts of volume in ‘E lucevan le stelle’, but when faced with such ardour, swagger and risk-taking, resistance is futile.
Jonathan Lemalu’s biddable Sacristan and Hubert Francis’s ultra-sinister Spoletta both stand out, and Alexander Joel has a sure sense of the music’s weight and is a nimble accompanist – in the case of Grigolo, particularly, he has to be.