Tosca - Royal Opera House, 9 July 2009 (first night)
Angela Gheorghiu is of course better known for dropping out at the last minute than dropping in, but then Deborah Voigt unexpectedly withdrew from this Tosca mere days before opening night. Just when it seemed Bryn Terfel might be obliged to fake five nights of uncontrollable passion for the plucky but frankly 'autumnal' Nelly Miricioiu, the surprise announcement was made that la Gheorghiu would be returning to Covent Garden in the production created for her in 2006.
Gheorghiu has her knockers, but while her voice and her (un)professionalism are open to criticism, her presence is undeniably electrifying. The stage wasn't set on fire when she stepped on it (something of a surprise given the number of burning candles and the repeatedly-demonstrated clumsiness of the cast) but the temperature certainly rose a few degrees. Despite the teasing playfulness of her jealous outburst, she displayed a compelling nervy intensity - some compensation for puny and even tremulous singing that didn't firm up until the second act.
Her performance was gripping, but it simply wasn't moving. Even when she span out Vissi d'arte quite exquisitely in her tiny porcelain voice, it left me cold.
She's a generous performer though, and there was a real frisson to her interaction with Marcello Giordani, who never let his enormous voice overwhelm her tiny instrument. His physical rigidity (a health issue?) didn't convince. But he sang Cavaradossi with textbook precision, if like Gheorghiu he was ultimately uninvolving.
And I can't help thinking there's something wrong with a production where Tosca has more secksy-chemistry with Scarpia than Cavaradossi. There's a disturbing hint of complicity with Bryn Terfel's poison-hearted psychopath, a man who casually terrorises even his own staff. But then who wouldn't be drawn to him? - this is a magisterially compelling performance from Bryn, and immaculately sung, with penetrating attention to every syllable. Hiding his torture chamber behind a Bond-style secret bookcase door in his house is a clever touch - only the truly committed bring their work home.
Amongst the smaller roles, Kostas Smoriginas as Angelotti and Jeremy White as the Sacristan stood out as well-rounded and well-sung.
Jonathan Kent's traditional production has awkward, ugly sets, and the singers seem subservient to the scenery, forever negotiating a minefield of unduly fussy touches - bread drops from ladders, cheese rolls down stairs, windows open when they shouldn't, doors don't want to open when they should, singers walk into the furniture. If I'd bet a week ago on which show a singer would break a leg in, it would be this one. But it tells the story, straight.
Unlike Jacques Lacombe's efficient but prosaic conducting. Plain loudness substituted for real excitement, and dynamics shrunk in response to the size of the voices rather than dramatic necessity. Unlike the scenery, it never came close to catching fire.
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