Vasily Petrenko conducted the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and a fine trio of principals in an excellent semi-staged production of Puccini’s Tosca, directed by Amy Lane.

Bryn Terfel (baritone) as Il Barone Scarpia with Victoria Yastrebova (soprano) as Floria Tosca. Phot © Liverpool Philharmonic
Bryn Terfel (baritone) as Il Barone Scarpia with Victoria Yastrebova (soprano) as Floria Tosca. Phot
© Liverpool Philharmonic

The two performances of the opera form the culmination of Bryn Terfel’s two-week stint as Artist in Residence with the orchestra. In addition to a Brahms Requiem, a musicals concert and his role as Scarpia tonight, he was also permitted, rather indulgently, to select his own Tosca and Cavaradossi. His choices proved to be fine judgements, as all three gave musically and dramatically powerful performances.

Vladimir Galouzine was particularly excellent as Cavaradossi. Puccini’s expression of the opera’s tensions through some monstrously high lines for the baritone makes this a challenging role, but Galouzine did not falter. He gave immense displays of power throughout his range, hitting even the most stratospheric notes with precision and fullness of sound. His big voice occasionally threatened to dominate in the quieter scenes, but he made a very convincingly passionate lover. The very opening scene of the opera did not quite make his revolutionary sympathies explicit, but by the time of his death he was fully developed in character.

Galouzine’s interactions with Tosca (Victoria Yastrebova) were mostly very well done. The pair successfully conveyed the broad emotional palette of the opera, from opening comedy to final tragedy. Yastrebova herself displayed a consistently beautiful tone, and her Act II aria “Vissi d’arte” was superbly affecting. In Act I her stage presence occasionally threatened to be swamped by Galouzine, but she became more dominant as the evening progressed. After murdering Scarpia she managed to hint at a strong sense of guilt, and her grief at the close of the opera was very well conveyed.

Bryn Terfel did a superb job of bringing rather more to the Scarpia role than the standard villainy. His characterisation was amply repugnant, but he also earned some degree of sympathy for his affection for Tosca. He gave some passages of ravishing beauty to describe his affection for the young singer, and thus brought some complexity to an otherwise straightforwardly villainous role. In this latter respect, he showed brilliant menace in dealing with Cavaradossi, giving some lines just an inch from Galouzine’s nose. His mental torture of Tosca in Act II was little short of brutal and was quite uncomfortable to witness.

The remainder of the cast consisted of young singers from the Liverpool-based European Opera Centre. Rafał Pawnuk (Angelotti), Romanas Kudriasovas (the Sacrestan), Philipp Kapeller (Spoletta) and Peter Kellner (Sciarrone/Jailer) all sang well, adding colour and freshness to the performance without threatening to dominate. Treble Joseph Houghton (Shepherd Boy) did a good job of his challenging solo.

Amy Lane’s direction made this far more than a mere concert performance. Utilising just a small space in front of the orchestra, a great deal of the work’s full dramatic potential was realised. The staging used just a small array of props to good effect; much of Act II took place around Scarpia’s dining table, highlighting the deep personal involvement of the Chief of Police in the case. The back wall of the Philharmonic Hall stage was given to Tim Baxter’s video backdrop. This cleverly made use of Marianne Forrest’s Adagio sculpture, which divides the wall into jagged sections. Baxter used this to show different images of Rome in the various sections, hinting at the fractured, troubled political scene of 1800.

Vasily Petrenko brought out excellent performances from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra. The highlight of the choral involvement was a magnificent “Te Deum” to close Act I. The choir made a shattering sound here, and Terfel did an admirable job of interjecting with his secondary line where possible. The orchestra were outstanding all evening, from opening aggressive brass playing to sumptuous accompaniment elsewhere. The string playing at Tosca’s entrance was beautifully soft, spun into elegant legato beneath woodwind triplets. Jonathan Aasgaard’s cello solo in Act 3, whilst the apparently doomed Cavarodossi wrote his letter to Tosca, was superbly poignant.

This was a fine performance of Puccini’s gripping thriller, never allowing the listener to wish for a fully staged production but effectively highlighting the excellent orchestral playing demanded by the score.