For the first time in 38 years, a new Tosca graces the stage at the Berlin Staatsoper im Schiller Theater. Starring Anja Kampe as the titular diva, Fabio Sartori and Michael Volle, Puccini’s Tosca finally received an upgrade on last Friday.

The new production, directed by Alvis Hermanis and conducted by Daniel Barenboim, is largely traditional, though updated to the early 20th century. It is a straightforward Tosca, not deviating from the traditional setting of church, palace and prison. Indeed, the screen that made up part of the set opened the opera with the words, “The events of Tosca took place in Rome in 1800. Puccini composed his opera 100 years later”.

Hermanis’ innovation was this very movie screen. As the overture commenced, the screen faded to a painting – not Cavaradossi’s Magdalene, but Rome circa 1800, with Angelotti slipping through the streets and into the church dell Sant’Andrea. The slideshow continued throughout the opera, illustrating the story even as it was acted out onstage. Thus, Cavaradossi enters the stage both in real time and in illustration. Tosca arrives carrying flowers: an enormous bouquet onstage and a smaller one on-screen. Cavaradossi is hauled off to be tortured by bowler hat-wearing thugs onstage, while his illustrated counterpart is led away by a pair of burly, shirtless men. The Act II torture scene was perhaps the most effective use of slideshow, for the audience was treated to a graphic picture of Cavaradossi chained to a wall, screaming blue murder, with an iron band squeezing his head. Later, a painted, bewigged Scarpia pawed at Tosca’s skirts, while onstage Michael Volle undressed and prepared to have his way with Anja Kampe on a table. It was well thought out, but ultimately detracted from the wonderful performances given by the singers.

In the role of Mario Cavaradossi, Fabio Sartori gave a capable although lacklustre performance. While his voice is rich and meaty, his acting skills left something to be desired. It was hard to see him as being Tosca’s lover, for there was hardly any chemistry at all between Sartori and Kampe. Sartori tended to place himself in one area and stay there for the entire scene, while the action moved around him. Given that Cavaradossi’s actions are what drive the story, this was most unfortunate. His cries of “Vittoria!” were hardly thrilling, and “E lucevan le stelle” did not have the despair that makes the aria such a tearjerker. In the end, he was shot in the neck by the jailer, and one felt more sorry for the man dying in the slideshow than the man dying on the stage.

Anja Kampe fared much better as Floria Tosca. There is very little that Kampe cannot do if she has a mind to, it seems, and her Tosca is fiery and passionate, and also quite sexually aggressive. She sang “Vissi d’arte” less as a lament and more as a seduction, stroking Scarpia’s face and chest as she listed her good deeds and even undressing him in preparation for what was to come. Kampe’s acting was excellent, bringing forth both Tosca’s girlishness and her seductive abilities: there were no doubts at all that her Tosca is a desirable woman, and also one perfectly capable of manipulating a situation to her own ends. “If we are going to have sex, it will be on my terms,” was the message she gave in the great confrontation. Given that Tosca is so often portrayed as a silly, dithering fool, Kampe’s take was a breath of fresh air. The only problem with her Tosca was that she did not throw herself off the tower, merely walked towards the foot of the stage while her illustrated counterpart took the flying leap for her. And the blame for that can be solely laid at Hermanis’ feet.

Her Scarpia, Michael Volle, was Kampe's equal in terms of both singing and acting. Volle’s voice is neither gentle nor crooning, and he used it to grand effect as Scarpia. This was no evil gentleman, but a vicious, even psychotic chief of police, hell-bent on getting what he wanted. His “Tre sbirri, una carozza” was pure evil, sung rough and insistent, deeply sexual. Volle’s Scarpia was also comfortable with his underlings knowing that he routinely raped women, as Spoletta was not remotely surprised to see Tosca sitting on his lap. It was an unsettling performance, and an excellent one.

The cast was rounded out by the fine performances of Tobias Schabel as the Sacristan, Florian Hoffmann as Spoletta, Maximilian Krummen as Sciarrone, and Grigory Shkarupa as the jailer who doubled as executioner. Special mention must also be given to Jakob Buschermöhle of the Staatsoper’s children’s choir, for his haunting rendition of the shepherd’s song. The orchestra deserves mention, for it gave a beautiful and effective performance, if not one that was particularly haunting.

Overall, this is a solid Tosca with a good cast and some interesting ideas. Ultimately, though, it was undermined by its own technology of the slideshow, and the production staff was roundly booed for it. The end result was more the feeling of watching a concert performance than a live opera. The singers did not need the accompanying slideshow, as they were more than capable of telling the story themselves. Give us a slideshow Tosca in a concert setting, or let us watch the singers. Both together is simply too much.