Nothing sweeps away the Christmas excess of multiple Nutcrackers like the biting chords denoting the villainous Baron Scarpia at the start of Tosca. I have a sneaking fondness for Puccini’s ‘shabby little shocker’, back for a brief run at the Royal Opera. The libretto is so detailed, perfectly matching action to musical phrase, that it’s difficult for a director to put a foot wrong. Jonathan Kent’s 2006 production is handsome enough, but a clumsy revival and poor singing did little to get the blood pumping.  

Amanda Echalaz (Tosca) and Roberto Frontali (Scarpia) © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
Amanda Echalaz (Tosca) and Roberto Frontali (Scarpia)
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

When Franco Zeffirelli’s classic staging finally got the heave-ho, Kent’s replacement was seen as Zeffirelli-lite: grand but uncontroversial (the Royal Opera knows that Tosca has to get bums on seats). It’s a stylish show, though not without flaws. Act I’s Church of Sant’Andrea della Valle is, for some unfathomable reason, on split levels so that characters have to scurry up and down stairs, barely leaving time for Tosca or the Sacristan to leave the scene before escaped prisoner Angelotti has to emerge from his Attavanti Chapel hiding place. Scarpia’s lair in Palazzo Farnese is suitably brooding, while an outsized archangel’s wing looms threateningly over Act III’s Castel Sant’Angelo.

But Andrew Sinclair's direction in this revival is careless. To give two examples: The Sacristan, in the first scene, notices that Cavaradossi hasn’t eaten his lunch: “il paniere è intatto” (“the basket has not been touched”). Here, the irascible Sacristan (Donald Maxwell) has to climb the ladder to the painter’s scaffold… where he fails to reach the basket before delivering his line. In Act II, Scarpia maliciously instructs Spoletta to open the door (“Aprite le porte”) so Tosca can hear Cavaradossi being tortured. But he opens the door himself just beforehand. Did nobody involved in rehearsals dare to point this out?

Amanda Echalaz (Tosca) © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
Amanda Echalaz (Tosca)
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore
Lumpen direction of the principals led to cardboard cut-out portrayals. There’s more to Scarpia than an out-and-out thug. Suave charm makes him much more dangerous. Vocally, however, Roberto Frontali’s Scarpia was the best of the principals. His gritty baritone struggled to ride the orchestra in the Te Deum, but he struck fine form in Act II, taunting Cavaradossi and lusting after Tosca before committing the fatal error of leaving sharp objects around on the dining table.

Amanda Echalaz will have sung the title role much better than this evening. She lacked an Italianate sound and continually pulled up short at high notes, like a racing horse threatening to refuse a jump. “Vissi d’arte” suffered choppy phrasing, with breaths in odd places. A huge disappointment, despite her dramatic commitment.

Royal Opera debutant Najmiddin Mavlyanov did little to suggest a return visit. Nerves may have affected “Recondita armonia”, with a refusal to linger on the ‘money notes’. He has a covered, nasal tone and his tenor never really opened up all evening. “E lucevan le stelle” lacked poetry and the ‘sit up and beg’ invitation for applause at its conclusion was met with a stony silence more chilling than the execution squad that followed in its wake.

Najmiddin Mavlyanov (Cavaradossi) © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
Najmiddin Mavlyanov (Cavaradossi)
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

Smaller roles were variably cast. Yuriy Yurchuk’s Angelotti had strong presence and Donald Maxwell characterised well as the Sacristan. I recall enjoying Hubert Francis’ Spoletta last time round; here, it has tipped over into caricature.

Emmanuel Villaume summoned terrific sounds from the pit – ripe opening chords, a vivid depiction of dawn breaking around the castle, and a haunting postlude to Act II as Tosca performs her candles and crucifix ritual for the murdered Chief of Police. Unfortunately, Villaume’s tempi wavered between too fast – Echalaz and Mavlyanov consistently behind the beat in the love duet – and too slow, all too rarely hitting the Goldilocks “just right” somewhere in between. This show is double cast. I'm tempted to catch the 'A' team if only on the basis that Angela Gheorghiu and pals have to fare better than tonight's disappointment.