A stone lion pins down its prey in Scarpia’s study, symbolic, no doubt, of the cat-and-mouse game the Chief of Police plays with Tosca in Act 2. But it could also represent the cast in Davide Livermore’s new production of the “shabby little shocker” to open the season at the Teatro alla Scala, crushed under the weight of a stylish but gargantuan staging that demands the spotlight. And with Riccardo Chailly keen to shine fresh light on Puccini’s score, reinstating the 1900 “Urtext”, it wasn’t always an easy night for the singers to shine.

Anna Netrebko (Tosca), Francesco Meli (Cavaradossi) and Luca Salsi (Scarpia)
© Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

Livermore brings fluidity and a cinematic sweep to his staging, although Act 1 is restless to the point of hyperactivity. Walls drop in, pillars glide, the Attavanti Chapel skates across the floor and the set rises so we see the fugitive Angelotti escaping downstairs. The platform on which Cavaradossi paints is also mobile, his portrait of Mary Magdalene appearing via a digital dissolve. It’s very busy and almost requires a traffic policeman; indeed, everything ground to a temporary halt at one point as Chailly waited for the stage to reset. And it’s all grimly dark, with no attempt to portray the golden morning light of Rome's Sant’Andrea della Valle. But the Te Deum is spectacularly done, the stage rising, candles bursting into flame as Luca Salsi’s Scarpia exults before turning to the audience with a demonic leer.

The Te Deum
© Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

The Farnese Palace features three distracting biblical frescoes which come to life at various points in the drama, the figures reaching out in supplication at the climax of “Vissi d’arte”. We watch Cavaradossi being tortured below stairs. After Tosca has killed Scarpia – three stabs and a bit of strangulation thrown in for good measure – she steps forward and has an “out of body experience”, watching her double standing over the corpse, wielding a knife.

Act 3 is dominated by a huge wing, whose feathers flutter in the dawn breeze, blowing away to reveal the Castel Sant’Angelo which revolves to reveal Cavaradossi’s prison cell. After the firing squad has dispatched its victim, the wing pivots and dips to reveal the leaping Tosca floating in a knot of light. Beam me up, Puccini!

Anna Netrebko does her best to wrest prime billing away from Livermore. Her voluptuous chest notes sounded as rich as ever and her Tosca was every inch the haughty diva in Act 1, easily pricked by jealousy. She came alive in Act 2, dressed in a two-tone gown that looked as if the lower half was already soaked in Scarpia’s blood. She and Salsi sparked off each other well and “Vissi d’arte” was luxuriantly sung, although Chailly’s slow tempi messed with her breathing.

Anna Netrebko (Tosca)
© Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

Admirably, Francesco Meli deferred from his usual “can belto” default setting and his Cavaradossi was often finely nuanced, especially in a touching “E lucevan le stelle”. Salsi, sounding underpowered initially, grew in menace as a bruising Scarpia, his purple baritone ripening in the second act. Apart from Carlo Bosi’s incisive, stalking Spoletta, the minor roles were undistinguished, from a grainy Sacristan to a woolly Angelotti. But the La Scala chorus slayed it in the Te Deum.

Also grabbing attention was Chailly, who – significantly – did not take a solo curtain call. Following his championing of the original version of Madama Butterfly three seasons ago, the music director here opened up minor cuts and alterations Puccini made after the opera’s 1900 premiere: five extra bars in the first-act love duet; a few extra lines for Spoletta’s prayer, “Watch out… time is fast” Scarpia warns when Tosca responds to his “Risolvi!” with a “No”; fourteen extra bars after Tosca stabs Scarpia allow time for a second, then a third stab; her “E avanti a lui tremava tutta Roma!” is sung and shifted slightly in the score. Finally, after Tosca tries to rouse the lifeless Cavaradossi there is a different, almost symphonic ending. Although worth hearing, Puccini’s alterations were all for the better and there was nothing revelatory reintroduced here.

Francesco Meli (Cavaradossi) and Anna Netrebko (Tosca)
© Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

What was revelatory were the orchestral colours. Favouring slow tempi, Chailly was painting in oils, scraping out new textures with his palette knife, from prickly double basses as Scarpia grills Cavaradossi to a glowing portrait of a Roman dawn. The latter was sadly not matched by Livermore whose grey clouds scud behind his giant prison wing, an oppressive reminder of directorial dominance, however impressive the staging.

Mark’s accommodation in Milan was funded by the Teatro alla Scala