Recipe for a perfect Tosca: Start with your base, a sympathetic production which places you in Rome in 1800. Spread with a lush filling of sweeping, colourful orchestral playing. Now add the main layer of your cake: a generous portion of three star singers, all of them fully committed to acting as well as singing their roles. Finally, garnish with spectacular set pieces in each act.

Gerald Finley (Scarpia), Adrienne Pieczonka (Tosca) © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
Gerald Finley (Scarpia), Adrienne Pieczonka (Tosca)
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

Over the years, the Royal Opera has proved adept at following the recipe. Jonathan Kent’s 2006 production is now on its ninth revival (which means it’s had very few seasons of absence) and it certainly meets the requirement: there are well executed, no-nonsense renderings of Sant’Andrea della Valle, the Palazzo Farnese and the Castel Sant’Angelo; the costumes are recognisably Napoleonic; props and plenty of stage detail provide the singers with the means of acting the well-defined plot without hindrance. One cavil about last night: the lighting seemed very dark, particularly in Act 3 where I could barely see the great stone wing of the eagle atop the castle until the lights came up for the curtain call. But basically, this is a staging that sticks to the original stage directions and works well.

Dan Ettinger was idiosyncratic in his choice of tempi, erring mostly on the slow side. While I’d normally worry about things becoming leaden, I was surprised to find myself enjoying the orchestra’s playing hugely in Act 1, because they conjured up lashings of brightness and colour to add to Puccini's sweeping dynamic contours. With Adrianne Pieczonka and Joseph Calleja very much playing up the flirtatious, happy side of Tosca and Cavaradossi’s relationship, the act flew by with immense verve, helped by a show-stealing performance by Jeremy White, the Royal Opera’s regular Sacristan, simultaneously figure of fun and dangerously fundamentalist cleric.

Jeremy White (Sacristan) © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
Jeremy White (Sacristan)
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

Interest in this production was heightened by the fact that all three of our principal singers were singing their roles at Covent Garden for the first time – indeed, this was Gerald Finley’s overall role debut as Scarpia. It was a successful debut, if one that took me a while to get used to: Finley’s Scarpia is a snake rather than a brute, the venom coming through a sneer rather than a snarl. Calleja made a fine role debut as Cavaradossi at Grange Park Opera last year: this performance will have thoroughly satisfied his fans. The openness and clarity of Calleja’s voice came through, and his generous personality is a good fit for Cavaradossi. Pieczonka was in good voice as Tosca, with plenty of confidence and power to go with a pleasant timbre. But the compelling acting of Act 1 wasn’t kept up: I didn’t really feel the inner turmoil that must suffuse Tosca in Act 2. In contrast, all the confrontations between pairs of our principals worked well.

Gerald FInley (Scarpia) © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
Gerald FInley (Scarpia)
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

But however good the main layers of the cake, what matters in Tosca is the big set pieces: “Recondita armonia” and the Te Deum in Act 1, “Vissi d’arte” and the dumb show in Act 2, “E lucevan le stelle” and “Amaro sol per te” in Act 3. In last night’s performance, each of these had imperfections which prevented them being the show stoppers that we hope for – albeit all of different kinds. “Recondita armonia” is Cavaradossi’s big entrance aria: I loved Calleja’s voice but had a slight feeling of him being overstretched – the high notes weren’t quite convincing. The Te Deum had timing problems between church bells and the rest of the orchestra, which was a fraction too loud for Finley as the movement reached its climax; “Vissi d’arte” betrayed more timing issues, this time between orchestra and Pieczonka. The dumb show – a celebrated tour-de-force by Sarah Bernhardt from the Sardou play which so enthralled Puccini that he retained it in the opera – was rather prosaic, Tosca’s fussing over searching Scarpia’s body for her safe conduct rather taking over from the torrid vortex of vengeful and religious emotions that Pieczonka should have been bringing to the fore. The Act 3 highlights suffered from oppositely strange tempo choices: Calleja’s voice coped admirably with an impossibly slow “E lucevan le stelle” but couldn’t prevent it dragging, while the duet “Amaro sol per te”, Cavaradossi and Tosca’s collective sigh of relief at what they (wrongly) believe to be their impending freedom, was taken at such breakneck speed that I feared for the singers’ ability to cope (also wrongly, but only just).

Joseph Calleja (Cavaradossi) © ROH | Catherine Ashmore
Joseph Calleja (Cavaradossi)
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

Fundamentally, this is a well cast revival of a strong production of a great opera, and is capable of reaching true excellence. It didn’t get there last night: the performance was still hugely enjoyable, but short of that last 10% which makes you leave the house with a spring in your step.