Few operas are as specific in time and place as Puccini's Tosca: the date is 17th June, 1800, shortly after the battle of Marengo (in which Napoleon Bonaparte wrested control of Northern Italy from Austria), while each of the three acts is located in a specific landmark in Rome: the church of Sant'Andrea della Valle, the Palazzo Farnese and the Castel Sant'Angelo. But few are as universal in theme: the brutal abuse of power in a police state, where a single weakness can cost your life and those of your loved ones.
If you have never seen Tosca, don't read the rest of this review: go and see this production instead. It's an excellent rendering of a classic opera, and it works better without spoilers (don't read the synopsis first, either). In fact, this is my first choice of opera for a novice – the music is both sophisticated and highly accessible, and the story is dramatic and thoroughly believable.
For me, the top honours in last night's performance go to conductor Maurizio Benini. His reading of the music was of exceptional lucidity: this is a detailed score in which many different elements are represented, often more than one at the same time, and each element was played with its distinct flavour, intense on the palate. Passages for the Sacristan were light and jaunty, Cavaradossi and Tosca's banter delicate and romantic, the Te Deum pompously grand. Clearest of all was the beginning of Act 3, with Puccini's extraordinary rendering of the sounds of Rome waking up, heard from the tower of the Castel Sant'Angelo. There were a number of imperfections in individual playing at key moments, and Benini didn't max out on the lush, soaring string sound as much as is often done, but it was still a performance to savour.
When I first saw Amanda Echalaz singing Tosca at ENO, three years ago, I had reservations about a certain sharpness of voice and excess of vibrato. Those reservations have gone: her fine feel for the drama is now accompanied by a smooth delivery and warm timbre. Echalaz really inhabits her character, throwing herself into the mood changes from frivolous prima donna to the hideous loss of innocence when faced with Scarpia's brutality – and then, all too briefly, back to happy frivolity in Act 3. In addition to the sung parts, she gave an extraordinary dumb-show of providing a quasi-funeral for Scarpia after she has murdered him – a passage that Puccini based on the performances he saw of Sarah Bernhardt acting Victorien Sardou's play, on which the opera is based.
Michael Volle sang an excellently demonic Scarpia. He's an imposing man, with small eyes set in a large face on a big frame and a rich voice that exudes violence or unctuousness at will. As Cavaradossi, Massimo Giordano was less convincing dramatically. He has a mellifluous, lyrical voice and sang the music with grace and ease, but I didn't feel that he threw himself into character as much as Echalaz or Volle, and I would have preferred to see a little more abandon.
Tosca is perhaps the classic opera for which it's easiest to argue that it's thoroughly relevant to our times and doesn't need to be messed around with. Jonathan Kent's staging doesn't mess around: it's a completely straight rendering of those historical Roman buildings, with accurate Napoleonic-era costumes. Set designer Paul Brown takes some carefully conceived liberties with the geometry of the church in Act I, which makes for a superb sonic experience in the Te Deum: the bulk of the action is on the floor of the stage, while the church nave is raised above, so we hear three layers of sound – chorus, baritone voice and orchestra – stacked vertically. Scarpia's Act 2 study is fussy and baroque, dominated by a huge statue; in contrast, Act 3 is spare and minimalist. This is a production that's been revived several times since it first appeared in 2006, and I imagine it has many years of life left.
But more than anything, I left Covent Garden struck by Puccini's score: I don't know of an opera that matches Tosca for being easy to get to grips with while also having great detail and sophistication. The opera's characters and many of the forces outside each have their own musical identities, and even when these are overlaid and fused, the ideas are always easy to decipher. And the score benefits from Puccini's meticulous research: he made multiple trips when writing Tosca, to Paris to meet Sardou and see the play, and to Rome to listen to the sounds of the city. The result is one of the enduring greats of the operatic repertoire, and this current Royal Opera revival is of very high quality. It may be a very familiar opera, but this is one case in which familiarity certainly does not breed contempt.