A Tosca borne from the designs of its 1900 première. Feeble gimmick or probing study? Apparently the latter. Young South African director Alessandro Talevi aims to strip away the accumulated varnish – more 'experimental' than traditional in his opinion – to reveal a drama that feels, paradoxically, new to an audience reared on digitally enhanced productions. The visual results are stunning, though an uneven cast made this a performance with clear weaknesses as well as strengths. Aquiles Machado's Cavaradossi, on the other hand, was an indubitable revelation. His singing afront a luscious backdrop made for some moments to savour.

Aquiles Machado (Cavaradossi) and Virginia Tola (Tosca) © Yasuko Kageyama | Opera di Roma 2014-15
Aquiles Machado (Cavaradossi) and Virginia Tola (Tosca)
© Yasuko Kageyama | Opera di Roma 2014-15

Talevi's production is doused in the atmosphere of a work almost fastidiously precise in its setting in time and place – mid-June 1800 in three locations in Rome – with scenography constructed according to Hohenstein's original sketches, and painted in remarkable detail by the artists of the same Teatro dell'Opera where the work was premiered 115 years ago. Act I's Basilica di Sant'Andrea della Valle basks in musty pastel colours and warm light from a windowed dome, with clutter provided by scattered statues and dividing grate. Visual layers built in the Te Deum with plumes of incense and the rich pigments of praying women's dresses, the sea parting for a procession of red when Scarpia's erotic sentiments bubbled over. We reached new levels of luxury in the glorious arch and gold gilt of Act II's Palazzo Farnese, though there was none more beautiful than the deep blues and purples of the Roman dawn as viewed from the ramparts of Act III's Castel Sant'Angelo. The image of a soldier peering over a skyline dominated by the Basilica di San Pietro to the sound of a symphony of Matins bells sticks in the mind.

Act I <i>Te Deum</i> © Yasuko Kageyama | Opera di Roma 2014-15
Act I Te Deum
© Yasuko Kageyama | Opera di Roma 2014-15

The singers did not always arouse such powerful emotions. Claudio Sgura's Baron Scarpia was sturdy in physique but lacking in stage presence. His voice was short on the required venom to portray the capo della polizia's twisted psyche. Sgura's altercations with Virginia Tola's Tosca in Act II were often flat. with a niggling bray to the soprano's voice and a tendency to bulge at the top, though the energy notched from Cavaradossi's torture scene onwards, culminating in a moving "Vissi d'arte". Act I's smaller roles provided more positive offerings: William Corrò's Angelotti was decisive and urgent, whilst the brazen singing of Domenico Colaianni's Sagrestano proved a show highlight. His patois of deliberate, studied gesture was fascinating in itself. Colaianni artfully weeded out the character's multifaceted essence from the comedic to the disquieting.

Claudio Sgura (Scarpia) and Virginia Tola (Tosca) © Yasuko Kageyama | Opera di Roma 2014-15
Claudio Sgura (Scarpia) and Virginia Tola (Tosca)
© Yasuko Kageyama | Opera di Roma 2014-15

The orchestra played with great sophistication under the baton of Donato Renzetti. Lithe, gliding strings were in full evidence, knotting and lilting with elastic rallentandi. There was also grit and bite when required. Where singers were sometimes smothered, we were grateful that Renzetti didn't let up on orchestral colour. A key player was the theatre's acoustic itself: the wooden structure of the auditorium favours the sweeter upper harmonics. It cast a brilliant sheen over the more delicate playing.   

Aquiles Machado's Cavaradossi constituted the surprise revelation. The voice is thrilling: sunny and bright with a resonant foundation, and a knitted sense of line capped with a solid upper register (his cry of "La vita mi costasse, vi salverò!" in an excitable re-encounter with Angelotti clicked into place with the purest of vowels). There is nuance to the tenor's characterisation, too, communicated both vocally and with a natural physical presence, so that his early trifle with Tosca switched between affection, rapture and playboy beguilement.

Aquiles Machado (Cavaradossi) © Yasuko Kageyama | Opera di Roma 2014-15
Aquiles Machado (Cavaradossi)
© Yasuko Kageyama | Opera di Roma 2014-15
 

But it was deep, nostalgic rapture, plain and simple, for Cavaradossi's homage to Tosca in "O dolce mani". This was closely preceded by a show-stopping "E lucevan le stelle", concluding with a physically striking crumple under gunfire. "Ecco un artista!", gasps Tosca when she assumes Cavaradossi to have feigned his death. A real artist indeed, and one to look out for.