Cavaradossi’s “Recondita armonia” brought a shock. Rarely can the aria have been sung so loudly, and from Bryan Hymel too, a tenor usually more musical in approach. It was as if accurate intonation could not be guaranteed at a lower volume. Although he sang better later on, it was no surprise when, before Act 2 began, we were informed he had been struggling with a cold and had to withdraw from the rest of this opening performance at the Royal Opera House. Freddie De Tommaso, due to sing the role with the alternative cast, stepped in. So this development, which can lead to artistic compromise and audience disappointment, was negotiated without much trouble.

Freddie De Tommaso (Cavaradossi)
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

Tommaso sang very well given he was singing at such short notice. There is a pleasing italianità to his sound and style. Although he was denied the variety of his character’s role by the absence of the challenged lover and impromptu conspirator of Act 1, he made a credible figure of the defiant, tortured rebel and condemned man of the later passages. It must be a challenge when news arrives of Bonaparte’s victory at Marengo to have to sing his “Vittoria!” almost cold, but he exulted with the best of them, long and loud being quite justified here. His “E lucevan le stelle” was effective, if lacking a degree of nuance, but “O dolci mani” was more vocally caressing. His unfamiliarity with the staging led to him being shot standing between the execution posts rather than being tied to one. Perhaps like Bonaparte’s Marshall Ney he could refuse a blindfold and himself give the order to fire?

Alexey Markov (Scarpia) and Elena Stikhina (Tosca)
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

The Scarpia of Alexey Markov was lighter of voice than many a predecessor, such that he was at times swamped in the Te Deum, which with the right balance is almost the score’s best passage, bringing the sanctity versus sacrilege sub-theme of the opera powerfully into focus. Laudably though, Markov was vocally more suave than snarling, and acted the part convincingly in the second act. This Chief of Police is surely a success with his superiors, more model employee than malevolent evil genius, effective in his methods even after death. The contemptuous dismissal of Tosca’s “E avanti a lui tremava tutta Roma!” is more understandable with this Scarpia.

Elena Stikhina (Tosca)
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

Elena Stikhina was a superb Floria Tosca, the Russian A-lister making her house debut. The soprano, who sings both Mimì and Salome, easily encompassed the jealousy, piety, tenderness, credulity and murderous passion of the diva, switching between these characteristics without breaking step musically. Lustrous of voice and lyrical of line, she has spinto power in reserve. “Vissi d’arte” was nearly cut by Puccini as it holds up the action. Here, the cheers and rapturous applause held up the action even further.

Tosca, Act 3
© ROH | Tristram Kenton

The smaller roles were all taken effectively, Jeremy White’s fussy Sacristan avoiding the sillier end of the cleric’s antics. Oksana Lyniv conducted with narrative drive in her house debut, and the orchestra responded to her direction with many fine moments, not least the horn section braying out through the Roman night to open Act 3. This tenth revival of Jonathan Kent’s classic production is in good shape, and Paul Brown’s sets still look handsome, especially to anyone new to them – of which there were many in the house to judge by overheard comments, and from a young audience. The Royal Opera House seems to have become a venue for a cool night out for London’s jeunesse dorée. With Elena Stikhina such a jewel in this gilded setting of a production, they certainly heard what opera can do.