Opera is an unashamedly dramatic genre of entertainment. And Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca is amongst its most dramatic exemplars: particularly in Luc Bondy’s production, which opened the Met’s 2009/10 season, controversially replacing Franco Zeffirelli’s much-loved version. In it, a trio of dramatically gifted opera stars – Karita Mattila, Marcelo Álvarez and George Gagnidze – combine with set designer Ricahard Peduzzi and conductor Joseph Colaneri to create an unflinchingly intense representation of Puccini’s tragic tale of jealousy, love and betrayal.

The curtain rises to an opening orchestral blast as imposing and looming as the stark, vast walls of Mr Peduzzi’s Sant’Andrea della Valle, the roman church in which the first act is set. All three acts are set pieces, allowing Mr Peduzzi to design solid, uncompromising yet simple sets in which Mr Bondy creates a number of startling images, providing the opera with a stunning visual structure. Most arresting of all is the lugubrious “Te Deum” scene which brings the excitement of Act I to its terrifying conclusion: the immense, suffocating weight of Puccini’s relentless orchestral ostinato providing a musical backdrop to go with the slow procession of all the ornately vested clergymen and choirboys, like a scene from Federico Fellini’s film Roma. In front of them all is the chillingly evil figure of Scarpia, sadistic chief of police, extraordinarily played and sung by George Gagnidze: the perfect cunning, manipulative, power-hungry bad guy with a mad glint in his eye. Highly dramatic it certainly is, but Bondy’s imagery serves an extra-dramatic purpose too, illustrating the collusion of the Catholic Church in Scarpia’s anti-revolutionary reign of terror. Such insight adds semantic and historic depth to the opera, reminding us it is far more than a tragic love story.

Karita Mattila’s jealous outbursts throughout Act I portray the eponymous diva’s weakness of character that sets the cogs turning which ultimately lead to Tosca’s tragic conclusion. But if Ms Mattila’s excellent characterisation of Tosca’s foibles leads to a slight lack of sympathy for her on the viewer’s account, her remarkably beautiful rendition of “Vissi d’arte” – the emotional and musical climax of Act II – incites far more than sympathy. Tosca’s heartfelt exposition of her own innocence, her life dedicated to art and love, and her questioning the justice of the terrible situation in which she finds herself, is moving in the extreme. Ms Mattila’s total immersion in the character whose very soul she is voicing is utterly engrossing. During this act, Tosca’s forthcoming murderous escape from Scarpia’s lecherous clutches, and her eventual suicide, are cleverly presaged in two memorable images, Bondy again showing great dramatic imagination.

Whilst the orchestra in a way plays second fiddle to the singers and the depiction of action in Acts I and II, from the first downbeat of Act III it takes a far more prominent, overtly expressive role. And while the MET Orchestra makes a wonderful sound in the first acts, particularly in the luscious violin accompaniment to Tosca’s soprano melodies, but the final act it unleashes its most passionate sound, as Puccini’s score tells most of the story in the opera’s emotional and dramatic climax. The famous melody of “E lucevan le stelle” pervades the musical texture until Marcelo Álvarez, whose characterisation of Cavaradossi – playful, passionate and proud – is perfect throughout, unleashes the opera’s most impassioned outpouring. Álvarez favours rendering the sheer emotion of Cavaradossi’s tragic fate rather than a spotless representation of the score, and the effect is both musically heartbreaking and dramatically overwhelming. As Scarpia’s final betrayal unfolds, Cavaradossi lies slaughtered, soldiers close in on Tosca, and with a final orchestral blast of that famous melody, Bondy leaves us with a final dramatic image: Mattila mid-jump from the top of the Castel Sant’Angelo.