Ever since the Royal Opera House announced that two performances of its summer revival of Jonathan Kent's production of Tosca would feature an all-star cast, opera lovers all over the world have been desperately trying to get their hands on a golden ticket.

Bryn Terfel as Scarpia © The Royal Opera / Catherine Ashmore 2011
Bryn Terfel as Scarpia
© The Royal Opera / Catherine Ashmore 2011

An enduringly popular opera, Tosca is the story of the beautiful opera singer Floria Tosca and her lover, the revolutionary painter Mario Cavaradossi. Entangled in the political events of early 19th Century Rome, the pair fall into the hands of evil chief of police Baron Scarpia, who is determined to use Cavaradossi's republican sympathies and Tosca's jealous nature to claim the diva for himself. The opera's violent episodes and attempted rape scene led to it famously being labelled 'a shabby little shocker' when it was first performed in 1900, but its dramatic appeal has sustained. All seats for the two nights starring Angela Gheorghiu in the title role, Jonas Kaufmann as Cavaradossi and Bryn Terfel as Scarpia were snapped up within minutes of going on sale, and as the Royal Opera House's Music Director Antonio Pappano stepped into the orchestra pit on both Thursday and Sunday night, the excitement was palpable.

Puccini's score constantly moves back and forth between unparalleled beauty and earth shatteringly powerful drama, and it is hard to imagine anyone being more in tune with its nuances than Pappano. Sometimes disparagingly referred to as a 'singers' conductor' it was his innate understanding of the artists on stage as well as those in his orchestra that elevated these two performances beyond the excellent to the sublime. He watched Kaufmann like a hawk during Recondite armonia, and their joint efforts resulted in huge spontaneous applause during the Sunday performance. He was as attentive to Gheorghiu, supporting her slightly underpowered vocal as much as possible. All the wonderful sounds of Rome that Puccini worked into his opera rang out loud and clear under Pappano's baton, with the celebrations in the church of Sant' Andrea della Valle a rousing, joyous highlight and Tosca's last few moments on the ramparts of the Castel Sant'Angelo absolutely spine tingling.

Sparkling in several thousand pounds worth of Van Cleef & Arpels diamonds, Angela Gheorghiu gave a wonderful performance despite occasionally singing too quietly to be heard over the orchestra. As an actress, she isn't always natural and has a tendency to resort to some stock dramatic poses, but she brought a gentle sense of humour to the role and created sizzling chemistry with both leading men. When she projects, her voice has such a beautiful, songbird-like quality that I was quickly seduced and often had a lump in my throat. Her Thursday night Vissi d'arte was particularly gorgeous and her delicate vocal tremble leant the character a vulnerable, sympathetic air.

Kaufmann's Cavaradossi is surely the most compelling since Placido Domingo's. Physically perfect for the role, he is utterly convincing on the stage. Humour, passion and despair poured out of him to support that amazing dark-timbred, rich tenor and it was difficult not to breathe with his every note. During the love duets he was wonderfully intense, his 'Vittoria, Vittoria!' completely raised the roof and he was confident enough in the role to resist the obvious dramatic possibilities within E lucevan le stelle and give us some heartbreakingly beautiful, soft singing instead.

For me, however, both nights belonged to Bryn Terfel. Known to be one of opera's most genial superstars, he has battled to develop the most memorable Scarpia since Tito Gobbi made the role his own in the 1950s. Although he towered over the rest of the cast, he never relied on his imposing physique to create the required atmosphere of terror. In Act I, he radiated charisma and seemed to fight against his size with delicate, gentle gestures hinting at masterful manipulation and confused romantic emotions. In Act II he gave us evil personified, dragging Tosca about the stage like a rag doll, pulling and kicking at her dress, his eyes twinkling with pleasure at her fearful pleading.

With Scarpia's death came the disappointment that Terfel's vocal contribution was over. As powerful and weighty as you would expect (his 'Mario Cavaradossi!' could have broken windows) his mighty bass-baritone also has a lyrical quality and is full of beautiful colour. His Te Deum was the most memorable aria of both evenings for me, capturing all the required passion and drama. When he sang the line 'Fra le mie braccia illanguidir d'amor' ('Caught in my arms, smouldering with love') it was infused with so much softness and emotion that you could have been forgiven for thinking they were the words of a romantic hero, but within a split second, he was back to belting out thundering sadistic threats that seemed to shake the foundations of the Royal Opera House.

Terfel's skilled veering between heady romance and raw power were characteristic of both performances as a whole, and it is difficult to imagine any other combination of singers and musicians drawing more beauty, intensity or drama from this emotional roller-coaster of an opera. As Gheorghiu delivered the chilling 'O Scarpia, avanti a Dio!' ('Oh Scarpia, we shall meet before God!') and that final heart-wrenching refrain rose from the orchestra pit it was clear that opera history had been made, and I felt incredibly lucky to have witnessed it.