First seen in 2006, Jonathan Kent’s stylish if traditional Tosca rivals La traviata for longevity on The Royal Opera’s books. It’s easy to see why, especially returning to it so soon after ENO’s pallid new production. Kent’s long-term collaborator, the late Paul Brown, designed heavy-duty Italianate décor for all three acts, and together their work makes absolute dramatic sense, a lucid drama with no narrative oddities and plenty of subtle insights. I return to it with pleasure each time.

Malin Byström (Tosca)
© Clive Barda

The lead-up to the Te Deum in Act 1 is ingeniously rendered as incidental colour while Scarpia holds the stage unimpeded, his anger and hate in full flow. The assembly of church dignitaries and the gathering faithful are merely glimpsed on high, sensed rather than seen beyond the ornate chancel grille yet marshalled in painstaking detail by revival director Simon Iorio. Last to appear are the choristers, here a superb contingent from Cardinal Vaughan School, whereupon the liturgy begins. As theatre it is so cleverly conceived that the audience risks taking it for granted.

The current double-cast revival (Natalya Romaniw, Freddie di Tommaso and Erwin Schrott will take over mid-run) boasts Malin Byström in coruscating form as the titular diva. In Act 1 she won chuckles in her sweet comic exchanges with Cavaradossi, while her second-act entrance, mesmerising in tiara and gown as she entered Scarpia’s lair straight from a stage triumph, suggested a woman who might, in extremis, be capable of anything.

Malin Byström (Tosca) and Gwyn Hughes Jones (Cavaradossi)
© Clive Barda

The Swedish soprano’s sheer versatility is breathtaking. Every role she sings, be it Donna Anna, Salome or Tosca, seems to fit her like a glove. As well as combining haughtiness with vulnerability, she brings a spinto gorgeousness to Puccini’s heroine and imbues her with greater undercurrents of subtext than most of her peers can muster. It is a very special performance.

She is well matched by Gwyn Hughes Jones as Cavaradossi. Once patronised by commentators as capable but rough-hewn, the Welsh tenor has evolved into one of the UK’s most eloquent and robust tenors. The applause on opening night for his "Recondita armonia" and "E lucevan le stelle" deservedly shook the rafters, although it was his defiant cry of "Vittoria!" in Act 2 that made me want to leap out of my seat. Hughes Jones is a massive homegrown talent, and it’s time we celebrated him.

Gabriele Viviani (Scarpia) and Malin Byström (Tosca)
© Clive Barda

Of the principal trio, only Gabriele Viviani’s Baron Scarpia felt a touch undercooked. The notes were there but he didn’t colour them with evil, and his baleful presence lacked a satanic edge. In a face-off between him and Byström’s Tosca there could only ever be one winner, and it wasn’t him. Secondary roles were well taken, not least Jeremy White as the Sacristan, a role he has sung many times and now imbues with a sense of accidental treachery that’s intriguingly ambivalent.

Malin Byström (Tosca)
© Clive Barda

Daniel Oren’s conducting of the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden can sometimes be stolid, but here it fired on all cylinders, thanks in no small part to the muscular brass who shook the foundations with the opera’s introductory "Scarpia" motif. When it comes to unbridled nastiness, nobody does it better.

****1