“I am big. It's the pictures that got small.” Like Norma Desmond, Tosca is no shrinking violet. Forget small screen acting. It’s an opera that requires big performances, singers able to depict larger-than-life characters and beam them out into the auditorium. Which is what the cast predominantly delivered in this revival of Jonathan Kent’s Zeffirelli-lite staging at The Royal Opera. Subtlety and good taste were thrown out the Palazzo Farnese window in red-blooded performances under conductor Alexander Joel, even if there were vocal and dramatic misfires along the way.

Kristine Opolais (Tosca) and Bryn Terfel (Scarpia) © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
Kristine Opolais (Tosca) and Bryn Terfel (Scarpia)
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

Kristine Opolais returns to the production after her 2013 appearance in the title role. The Latvian’s silvery timbre is distinctive and the voice sounds larger now, even if there’s not always enough steel. She looks every inch the diva and sang “Vissi d’arte” with admirable restraint: "All right, Mr Puccini, I'm ready for my close-up." She played the jealousy card well in Act 1, teasing Vittorio Grigòlo’s puppyish Cavaradossi when instructing him to paint the Madonna’s eyes black to reflect her own. And sparks flew in her confrontation with Bryn Terfel’s thuggish Scarpia, taking a candlestick to him at one point, and stuck the knife in (twice) with relish. There were several “over the top” moments – “Ecco un artista!” was melodramatic beyond belief – but then, any element of disbelief should be surrendered at the cloakroom prior to the performance.

Terfel played Baron Scarpia when Kent’s staging opened in 2006, the lanky mane of hair a far cry from the powdered wig of the classic Zeffirelli production it replaced. Somehow, Terfel makes this thuggish chief of police really work. There’s nothing remotely aristocratic about his bass-baritone roar. He menaces, angrily whipping the painter’s lunch basket with his riding crop, and there’s insinuation too, creepily whispering his “Ebbene?” into Tosca’s ear. Hubert Francis’ slippery Spoletta isn’t immune to the lasciviousness either, sniffing Tosca’s fan when heading off on his surveillance mission.

Kristine Opolais (Tosca) and Vittorio Grigòlo (Cavaradossi) © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
Kristine Opolais (Tosca) and Vittorio Grigòlo (Cavaradossi)
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

Grigòlo was the star turn of the evening, making his house debut as Cavaradossi. He’s instantly likeable, dangling his legs over the painter’s scaffold during “Recondita armonia”, sparring amiably with Jonathan Lemalu’s grumpy Sacristan, cheekily slicking back his hair with a touch of holy water when Tosca appears. Grigòlo makes a big, heroic sound, his sunny timbre just what you’d wish for, although “E lucevan le stelle” – taken at a crawl – suffered from having overparted himself in two long cries of “Vittoria” in Act 2. He’s a singer inclined to excess. His acting frequently requires a restraining order.

The ROH orchestra packed a punch too, in robust form with plenty of brass sand-blasting. Joel judged most tempi well and adapted to Grigòlo’s indulgences adroitly.

Kristine Opolais (Tosca) © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
Kristine Opolais (Tosca)
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

Niggles about Kent’s production persist, especially the two-tier set for Sant’Andrea della Valle which leads the characters to spend much of Act 1 schlepping up and down stairs. The Roman dawn is a long time coming, Act 3 played out almost entirely in darkness. In Act 2, Tosca’s silver dress was so cumbersome that Terfel had to hoof it out of the way so his Scarpia could dive in for his fatal clinch. And when Opolais flicked the dress back before leaping off the battlements at the end of Act 3, its train was long enough that Spoletta could easily have grabbed it and saved her. Instead, the only thing he caught was the bouquet of roses thrown during the curtain call.

***11