In recent decades it has become something of a cliché to turn classic opera rogues into exponents of despotic regimes of 20th century. To this purpose, there are no baddies more bad than the Nazis, whose brutal abominations are used as a pincushion for Western conscience to get rid of every guilt and remorse. So, it was no wonder seeing director Jean Kalman set his production of Tosca in a wartime Rome governed by fascists, even if in doing so he creates incongruity with the libretto, where historical characters and facts like Napoleon and the battle of Marengo are evoked.

Stefano La Colla (Cavaradossi) and Fiorenza Cedolins (Tosca) © Teatro di San Carlo
Stefano La Colla (Cavaradossi) and Fiorenza Cedolins (Tosca)
© Teatro di San Carlo

But apart from that, this re-contextualisation does not harm, as it lends purpose to the key cruel moments of Puccini's drama, which can otherwise sometimes seem gratuitous or formulaic. Scarpia as the sadistic chief of secret police adds an ultimate shade to Puccini's combination of individual sentiments and historical tragedy.

This staging was heightened by casting two fine dramatic singers as main roles, what made love effusions and jealousy fights more than plausible. Fiorenza Cedolins sang the title role with a passionate and intense voice, which sounded captivating and thrilling. The more her character grew desperate, the more her dramatic skills emerged, and her soprano was quite powerful and mostly effective. Her “Vissi d'arte”, Tosca's juxtaposition of her artistic and religious ideals against her fate, was attractively sung, and the drama and passion she put into this aria were worthy being there. No wonder the public responded enthusiastically.

Even more enthusiastic applause followed Stefano La Colla's “E lucevan le stelle”; “Recondita armonia” was also splendidly sung. He delivered one of the finest renderings of Cavaradossi in recent years. La Colla has a round tenor voice, and sang the first act with easy self-sufficiency and assurance. His major aria in Act III was carried by beautiful sound and fine shaping, without any roughness or shouting.

As for Sergey Murzaev 's Scarpia, his combination of harsh arrogance, solidity of voice and power gave the character a mark of callous wickedness. Gianvito Ribba sang the runaway Angelotti, whom Cavaradossi tries to help, with engaged confidence and passion, while Donato Di Gioia portrayed the sacristan as a comical tottering turncoat.

Sergey Murzaev (Scarpia) and Fiorenza Cedolins (Tosca) © Teatro di San Carlo
Sergey Murzaev (Scarpia) and Fiorenza Cedolins (Tosca)
© Teatro di San Carlo

Jordi Bernàcer conducted with great acumen and a fine empathy with Puccini's lavish lyricism and vivid orchestration. The orchestral sound was thrilling and dramatic at top moments, while the chorus was vigorous, passionate and accurate.

This production of Tosca risks annoying a few opera buffs, as it renounces being one of those opulent, lavish productions typical of classic Italian stagings, to become a minimalist affair, a piece with a stark stage view.

Raffaele Di Florio’s sets were more than simple in the first act (no signs of church at all) and in the third act, where is Castel Sant’Angelo? Palazzo Farnese in the second act is turned into Scarpia’s study, decorated in fascist style. Costumes were designed by Giusi Giustino with the usual, impeccable coherence to the period.

I am often bothered at Regietheater productions, when they are not based upon a strong and credible idea. Nonetheless, I found this staging absolutely intense, especially in its arrangement of dramatic scenes. This was an intense, powerful reading of one of Puccini's tensest operas; there was much emotion in this staging, with more melodramatic upgrading as the story unfolded, to the inevitable tragic scenario. You could sense that every performer was completely in their role every moment. Unquestionably, opera at its best.