Tosca, Giacomo Puccini’s fifth opera, should have been the perfect opera for Spanish director Calixto Bieito. As anticipated, he took the action away from its Roman setting, eschewing the churches and crucifixes to be more able to focus on the three main characters. Yet somehow, with this most dramatic of operas, Bieito fails to make sparks fly. The human drama is only partly there and, with strangely dispassionate performances, this Tosca turns out rather tepid.

Claudio Sgura (Scarpia) © Erik Berg
Claudio Sgura (Scarpia)
© Erik Berg

As is his wont, Bieito distils and abstracts the drama until only the three main characters remain, surrounded by the blackness of Susanne Gschwender’s claustrophobically towering sets. Rather than opening in the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, the first act takes place in a harshly lit black box, chorus member Pietro Simone’s doddering Sacristan entering swathed in bin bags and religious paraphernalia. Cavaradossi is still an artist, his tableau vivant of the Virgin Mary actively courting controversy (at least if Bieito’s programme notes are to be trusted). Part of Cavaradossi’s installation seems to be a web of white tape, acting as both a physical obstacle but also, when violently torn down by Scarpia and his henchmen, a weapon.

Long before conductor Karl-Heinz Steffens even made his way into the pit, Jens-Erik Aasbø’s Angelotti walked onstage, carrying a cardboard sign reading, “Your silence will not protect you” in capital letters. Yet, however noble Angelotti’s incitement of rebellion, he is doomed to fail against the oppressive populism of Scarpia. The central conflict in this production is one between art and populism, of letting art exist on its own terms and using it for political gain. In Scarpia’s oppressive regime, artistic expression is something to be despised, to be torn down. It seems the people largely go along with this. Scarpia – made up to look frighteningly like a certain American president – does what he wants, and it is he who gets the upper hand at the end of the opera. As Tosca stands ready to jump from her death, a crowd appears, carrying placards with Scarpia’s face on them. No longer a feared dictator, he has become a martyr.

<i>Tosca</i> in Oslo © Erik Berg
Tosca in Oslo
© Erik Berg

Claudio Sgura’s Scarpia was pure, cold-hearted menace, only occasionally lashing out in anger, with terrifying results. With his characteristic blond hairdo and sinister smirk, his resemblance to Donald Trump was not accidental – indeed, making Scarpia into a Trump-like character makes sense, making explicit the latter’s disregard for everything but his own power. Vocally, Sgura was the most secure of the three main characters, his dark voice dripping with dangerous allure, singing with impressive diction. Making his debut as Cavaradossi, Daniel Johansson sang with a pleasingly free and ringing voice, with exciting high notes, yet there was not much in terms of dynamics other than loud and louder. Despite the general lack of dynamics, his “E lucevan le stelle” was thrillingly sung.

Daniel Johansson (Cavaradossi) © Erik Berg
Daniel Johansson (Cavaradossi)
© Erik Berg

As the title heroine, Svetlana Aksenova sang with a large and steely voice, verging on shrill in her seemingly indefatigable upper register, yet her middle all but disappeared in Puccini’s lush orchestral textures. Her vocal portrayal may not have been the most lyrical, yet Aksenova’s stridency in part gave the character a welcome edge. Acting-wise, however, she seemed to struggle. Bieito’s gritty, intensely realistic vision lends itself badly to the excesses and outright camp that so often accompany this opera which seemed to leave Aksenova flapping in mid-air, unable to give this most dramatic of characters any sort of life. Despite the deeply dramatic circumstances surrounding her, Aksenova’s Tosca was strangely uninvolving.

Claudio Sgura (Scarpia) and Svetlana Aksenova (Tosca) © Erik Berg
Claudio Sgura (Scarpia) and Svetlana Aksenova (Tosca)
© Erik Berg

In his final production as music director, Steffens led an impressively alert orchestra, responding to every sudden twist and turn in the music. Especially impressive were the brass, with a big, meaty sound; I have scarcely heard the horn section sound better than in the opening solo of Act 3. Still, there were instances of perilous intonation – the third act cello quartet and the clarinet solo of “E lucevan le stelle” were both out of tune – but the heat and humidity of the hall must surely take some of the blame.

Leaving the opera house, I felt like this production lacked something. While most of Bieito's ideas surrounding the drama seemed clearly realised, intensity was lacking from some of the vocal performances. The big ideas seemed in place, but a more clearly defined title character was sorely needed.