Erotically charged Tosca at Covent Garden from the Royal Opera; the core singing trio worked well together: Amanda Echalaz (Tosca), Massimo Giordano (Cavaradossi) and Michael Volle (Scarpia) are all “emerging talents” and playing characters of very similar ages to their own. The result was a dramatically credible performance with more subtle characterisations than is usually the case with a more blockbuster cast. A benefit of the now ubiquitous surtitles is to be able to follow the development of the plot in detail, line by line, as Puccini’s chilling melodrama unfolds.

Massimo Giordano’s singing of Cavaradossi’s Act 1 aria, while he is painting the fresco of Mary Magdalene in the church, was full of power, emotion and sensuality. His subsequent encounter with Tosca was fully charged with latent sexuality, Amanda Echalaz’s voice indicating her increasing erotic involvement.

Scarpia, the evil chief of police, starts his investigation and rapidly puts two and two together and makes five, although none of the characters challenges his logic. Michael Volle’s performance emerges from sexless black and white comic-book baddie to show a credibly erotic evil side. The period equivalent of the bedroom sadist with a vicious set of handcuffs and steel collar for his conquests, except that this Scarpia is obviously evil face to face and turns even more evil when we see his lust working in the bedroom.

The staging for Act 1 was both suggestive of ecclesiastical pomp and the power of a fascist regime: traditional church railings becoming demonic and then even erotic as the action developed. Placing the choir on the upper staging both enhances their heavenly role but also places them in a fantasy world above the “real” action. 

And young and supple voices with power and subtly, matched in the credible and powerful stage actions.

Act 2 staging is clearly an upstairs state room looking out over a civic square with a concealed and menacing dungeon hidden behind a bookcase, it’s suggestive of a Chicago gangster. Scarpia’s menace is emphasised by a larger than life warrior statue facing his desk and dominating the action. A sort of counterpart to the saintly statue in the centre of the church setting of Act 1. Amanda Echalaz (Tosca) and Massimo Giordano (Cavaradossi) were both characterising in their singing the vulnerability of their characters. The plot is that Cavaradossi resists interrogation by Scarpia’s thugs Tosca yields and betrays, and then lies to Cavaradossi, whom she has betrayed. The melodrama is bitingly credible with the music and the cumulative effect of the proceeding action involving us in the pain of the interrogation off-stage of Cavaradossi by Scarpia’s thugs plus the sadistic and intentionally erotic mangling on stage that Tosca receives from Scarpia in person.

Once Cavaradossi is dead meat (although in the way of opera, he recovers to sing his way through Act 3), Scarpia tries his menacing and evil bedroom chat-up lines on Tosca, who resists. It’s a duet of anti-love and the characterisation is in the style of the singing as well as the music. Michael Volle’s Scarpia seems to have the big lines and the heroic singing but Amanda Echalaz’s underplaying Tosca is just as effective.
Once Tosca has killed Scarpia, she sings a famous solo which is played centre stage in this production. Still vulnerable and now portraying scared and even wonder at having killed this tyrant whom all of Rome had feared, Amanda Echalaz sang beautifully and passionately but maybe without the ultimate fullness of vocal tone of the greatest performances on record. The detailed staging interpreting the music of the end of the act completed a dramatically effective and chilling performance of Act 2

Act 3 is set in the mystic outdoors in a high place. We see stars underneath a menacing cloud that was also suspended above the action of Act 1. In Act 3 it is revealed as the wing tip of an eagle, the Imperial Eagle of Napoleon signifying the fascist oppression, as seen by the revolutionaries in the play. Despite Cavaradossi’s dramatic last hour before his execution and his presence on stage and facility with heroic singing, Amanda Echalaz’s Tosca holds the stage with her force of character and brilliance of  voice. Her entry and their rapturous reunion is an emotional roller-coaster which is completely erotically charged. Their physical familiarity is exceptionally believable by the standards and conventions of operatic acting. Theer is one point where the singing refers to the dawn but that that never arrives in this production: a designer might deviate from what is sung in the script in order to emphasise the point that the hope of a new dawn never comes for Tosca nor Cavaradossi, but this omission keeps the audience in the grey light of pre-dawn. Even in the story, dawn arrives and the oppressor is overthrown.

Overall, a remarkable production of Puccini’s melodrama. The singing is excellent and in particular the core trio of Tosca, Scarpia and Cavaradossi work together extremely well. The production is modern and dramatic without being corny; the orchestra under Maurizio Benini gives the singers good support and lets the drama live and breathe.

After several disappointments recently where the production tries to usurp the music, it’s a relief to see a production where the undoubted talents of the Royal Opera company all pull in the same direction. Bravo!

Tosca - Giacomo Puccini

Conductor    Maurizio Benini
Floria Tosca    Amanda Echalaz
Mario Cavaradossi    Massimo Giordano
Baron Scarpia    Michael Volle
Spoletta    Hubert Francis
Angelotti    Michel de Souza
Sacristan    Jeremy White
Sciarrone    Jihoon Kim
Royal Opera Chorus
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

Director    Jonathan Kent
Designs    Paul Brown
Lighting design    Mark Henderson
Revival Director    Andrew Sinclair