If there is an opera that is most resistant to modern updating, Tosca is definitely one, as it is so entrenched in its specific Rome 1800 setting. A 2014 re-staging of the opera by Alvis Hermanis attempts to get around the constraint by moving the setting to 1900. But the production presents a 1800 version of the opera simultaneously in the form of video projections on a backdrop which faithfully depicts the action of the opera per libretto in a series of still paintings. Interestingly, the actual stage action often diverged from the paintings, causing the audience to wonder whether to watch the paintings or the live stage action. Then one realizes that this discomfort was purposefully caused by the director in a production that was on the surface traditional, by presenting an alternative version of Tosca that centers upon the conflict between Tosca and Scarpia. And the production benefited from having two strong singers for these two roles.

It should have been a tip-off when an announcement was made at the start of the opera that while Tosca took place in 1800, the opera premiered in 1900. Two substitutions were also mentioned: Gyula Orendt, in the part of Sciarrone, lost voice and the part was sung by Vincenzo Neri from side of the stage. Fabio Sartori withdrew at the last minute and Marcello Giordani, in house to sing in Un ballo in maschera and a veteran Cavaradossi, was called upon. While his clear tenor still rang impressively at times, he tended to sing in one color, and often loud, the voice lacking flexibility, especially when needed in Act I's love scene with Tosca.

The two German singers in the other two main roles, Anja Kampe as Tosca and Michael Volle as Scarpia, seem unlikely choices to sing Puccini. But then scholar Julian Budden described Tosca as the most Wagnerian of Puccini’s scores in its use of leitmotifs. The music is dynamic and continuous. So perhaps it was not so odd to cast the two singers associated with Wagner and other German roles. Kampe and Volle successfully demonstrated that their casting was an intriguing alternative to a more lyric, Italianate approach.

Kampe used her sumptuous middle voice to the best effect, and often succeeded in using the chest voice throughout the vocal range, avoiding an abrupt shift to high notes. An excellent actress, she threw herself into the role of a feisty diva who refused to let any man, her lover or her nemesis, dictate what to do. She was always in control, not only in her love scenes with Cavaradossi but also in Act II. While Tosca is typically a weeping willow reluctantly agreeing to Scarpia’s advance to save her lover only to stab the villain in desperation, in this production Tosca actively negotiated and even flirted with Scarpia as the latter finally agreed to her demands. “Vissi d’Arte” was sung not with Tosca standing alone on stage praying to God but with her pushing Scarpia on a settee in seduction. She addressed Scarpia as “Signore”, which was unconventional but not in violation of the text. After Tosca stabbed Scarpia repeatedly to death, she remained on the scene, sipping wine while the projection above showed a heroine making a hasty exit after decorating his body with candles and a cross.

Many baritones growl through Scarpia and strain to be heard above orchestra and chorus in the Te Deum. It was a pleasure to hear Michael Volle actually sing the role, often lyrically and elegantly with long breath. His voice had warm openness and yet could turn to a ferocious thunder. The end of Act I saw Scarpia gripping the church prayer stand in frenzy, a truly frightening sight. Volle used his flexible baritone to express the character’s shifting moods, and at times was almost quietly conversational with Tosca and his subordinates before launching into loud declamatory singing. It was a complete and multifaceted characterization of the villain, the most outstanding performance of the evening.

Smaller roles were handled competently by ensemble members. Jan Martiník made the role of the Sacristan interesting with his deep and penetrating voice. Grigory Shakarupa as Angelotti made a strong contribution in his fine vocal acting.

The Staatskapelle Berlin was on excellent form, conducted by Domingo Hindoyan with meticulous attention to the details of the score. He had a sweeping vision of the overall arch of Puccini’s music, and at times brought symphonic majesty to the orchestral prelude. The woodwinds and brass were especially impressive in responding to his clear and insightful reading. He was also supportive of singers’ needs to turn the volume down as needed, but let the orchestra blast thrillingly at the end of Acts I and III.  A magnificent job.