In Tosca there's a real sense of Puccini being at home. Written shortly after La Bohème, when he was right at the height of his powers, Tosca is a story of love, jealousy and political turmoil, taking place in Rome, the same city in which it was premiered. These are events and characters which Puccini could identify with, and the locale was one he knew, not the alien distance of Paris, the Orient or the US, where some of his other best-known operas are set. One of the great things about all Puccini's operas, regardless of locale, is how descriptive they are, with the music telling a story more powerful than words. In Tosca, Puccini's rich compositional voice seems to speak directly and uninhibitedly with the audience, and so when it's performed with passion and commitment there in nothing quite like it. Tonight's performance of Tosca at the Bavarian State Opera was as committed and passionate as anyone could hope for, and the effect was captivating.

Jonas Kaufmann (Mario Caravadossi), Karita Mattila (Floria Tosca) in the 2010 production at the Nati © Wilfried Hösl
Jonas Kaufmann (Mario Caravadossi), Karita Mattila (Floria Tosca) in the 2010 production at the Nati
© Wilfried Hösl

The escaped political prisoner Angelotti (sung by Goran Jurić) is seeking refuge in the church of S. Andrea della Valle, where the painter Cavaradossi is working. Though an excellent singer, Jurić sadly lacks something as an actor. Puccini's music is totally at one with its dramatic context and throughout Jurić's performance there was something of a disconnect, an unfortunate opening to an otherwise spectacular performance. However, the moment the painter entered, in the form of tenor Massimo Giordano, it was a different story. Singing of his love of the soprano Tosca, he completely embodied his character visually, emotionally and musically. His opening aria was one of those heart-stopping moments which make opera so special. Giordano's warm and smooth tenor soared easily over the top of his range, saturated with Cavaradossi's youthful love, making time stand still.

It's all too rare in Tosca for the two principal characters to be well matched to one another, but Catherine Naglestad's Tosca is perfect for Giordano's Cavaradossi. Not only are they both wonderful actors with rich, silky voices, but they are true musicians, creating magic with the notes on the page. In their first love duet there was a sense of them working as one, their voices blending perfectly, and their musical lines erotically interweaving; the result was truly magical. As Baron Scarpia Bryn Terfel is every bit the consummate operatic villain. His intimidating physical presence and powerful voice allow him to fully embody the character of the crazed Baron, intent on winning Tosca's affections, whether by deception or by force.

In the second act Angelotti is found and commits suicide, and Cavaradossi is implicated for protecting him from the authorities. Scarpia takes this opportunity to get rid of his rival, and interrogate Tosca. This is the emotional crux of the opera, and the interrogation scene in this production is a musical and dramatic rollercoaster. With two such incredible actor/singers, the scene comes to life, switching emotionally from Tosca's despair and defiance to the helplessness and rage of Scarpia's attempt to rape her. This is punctuated by the two major arias of the opera, Scarpia's "Già, mi dicon venal" and Tosca's "Vissi d'arte". Terfel's performance of the former starts off as a demonstration of his hidden love for Tosca, but descends into a manic desire to possess her. Naglestad's desperate prayer which follows is the perfect example of what all musicians, singers or otherwise must strive for. Naglestad has a technique which few other singers could match, but vitally she uses it entirely to serve the music, she soars through her high register, filling it with richness as she begs God for mercy and her final pianissimo pleas had the whole audience holding their breaths, the emotion continuing into a heart-wrenching silence.

Scarpia tells Tosca that the now condemned Cavaradossi's execution will in fact only be staged, and that they will be free to go afterwards, provided she sleeps with him, but once he has sent the message to the guard, Tosca stabs him and he dies before her eyes. However, when the moment of the execution comes it transpires that Tosca was duped by Scarpia and Cavaradossi dies in her arms. Giordano's performance of his final aria, a tragic farewell to life and love, was enough to move even the most jaded audience members to tears; rarely have I felt so moved at the opera. The final love duet which follows was the only place where the lovers came musically unstuck, with some significant though short-lived intonation issues. This was, however, soon forgotten, with Tosca's distress upon finding Cavaradossi's lifeless corpse presented vividly, both musically and dramatically by Naglestad, before giving an unforgettably defiant confession of Scarpia's murder and jumping from the castle walls to her death.

Such a dramatic opera, in which all three central characters die, doesn't need elaborate sets or staging to come to life. Designer Richard Peduzzi's set is simple but appealing, with a pared-down realism that focuses attention onto the action. Luc Bondy's direction of the three core cast members allowed for the drama to unfold as a whole, with a real sense of the three characters fitting together, while conductor Marco Armiliato ensured an equally successful musical collaboration.

This was one of the most breathtaking performances of any opera I've ever seen; music and drama combined perfectly, with neither taking precedence of over the other. The combined strengths of singers, orchestra and direction transcend the few minor flaws, completely leaving a whole far, far greater than the sum of its considerable parts, and the result just begs to be seen.

****1