Last Updated on December 10, 2021
Tosca – this time, the show DID go on – and in style!
The Royal Opera House is staging a classic revival of Tosca by Puccini, with three outstanding casts, running from 8th December to 22nd February. That casting, with singers alternating through December, proved particularly fortuitous last night, the opening night of the season. It is a production that has been plagued (literally) with challenges. Originally scheduled to open in January 2021 lockdown pushed the schedule back. Tosca reappeared on this autumn’s calendar but the first night has already been postponed once thanks to illness and technical issues. The first cast has Russian soprano Elena Stickhina in the lead role, Bryan Hymel cast as Cavaradossi her lover, Yuriy Yurchuk as Angelotti, the escaped political prisoner and Alexey Markov as Baron Scarpia, the Chief of Police. Tonight, a stalwart Bryan Hymel appeared for Act 1 as Cavaradossi but was clearly suffering. After the first interval, in what seemed to the audience like an almost seamless cast change Freddie de Tommaso, a 28-year-old British Tenor who was scheduled to sing later this week opposite Anna Pirozzi took his place with total conviction, his debut in the role at the Royal Opera House. What an achievement. Cavaradossi is not a role for the faint-hearted – de Tommaso pulled it off with style and conviction.
In Act I, Cesare Angelotti, who has been imprisoned for being a member of the Bonapartist government, escapes and hides in the Church of Sant’Andrea Della Valle, making his way to his family’s private chapel. Angelotti’s sister is the Marchesa Attavanti and, inspired by her beauty, the painter Mario Cavaradossi is working on a portrait of Mary Magdalene in her likeness. When Cavaradossi discovers Angelotti, he helps him hide but then is met by his lover, Floria Tosca. She’s jealous of Angelotti’s sister and doesn’t trust him. But, Tosca leaves and Angelotti flees with Cavaradossi to hide in the painter’s home. Tosca returns to the church to try and find Cavaradossi and finds Baron Scarpia, chief of the secret police searching. He discovers a fan with the Attavanti crest and Tosca is devastated, mistakenly believing that her lover has been unfaithful.
Act II takes us to the chambers of Scarpia. His henchman, Spoletta has been unable to find Angelotti but has arrested Cavaradossi for ‘laughing’ at his efforts to track down the fugitive. Scarpia sees an opportunity to achieve two goals – of which he tells us, finding Angelotti is the least important. Instead, he has Cavaradossi tortured with the aim of ensuring Tosca not only reveals Angelotti’s hiding place but is put in the position of needing to find a way to save her lover. De Tommaso appeared on stage for the first time at this point last night. Tortured but still rebellious and, hearing of a victory of Bonaparte he sings ‘Vittoria, Vittoria’, his voice resonating around the auditorium. He’s dragged off to await execution, while Scarpia coldly suggests that he will let Cavaradossi go free if she gives herself to him. It is against his advances that she sings the famous aria Vissi d’Arte.
Elena Stickhina has a stunning voice and, in this role, her Royal Opera House debut, she characterises the role of the Diva perfectly. Declaring that she has dedicated her life to art and love she calls on God for help. Eventually, she appears to give in to her tormentor, Scarpia. He orders a mock execution for Cavaradossi and writes a passage of safe conduct for the pair. But, when he attempts to make love to Tosca, she grabs a knife from the table and stabs him.
Act III takes place on the ramparts of Castel Sant’Angelo. Cavaradossi is awaiting execution and despairing of his future. Freddie de Tommaso sang a heart-rending, convincing, subtle and perfectly pitched ‘e lucevan le stelle’ which had the audience in raptures. When Tosca appears they imagine their future together, and, as the execution squad arrives Tosca begs Cavaradossi to fake death convincingly. But, she’s been betrayed by Scarpia – and the execution is real. Meanwhile, the murder of Scarpia is discovered and his men try to arrest her. She leaps from the ramparts to her death. I’m left curious about how the casting should have worked. For me, Elena Stikhina had a beautifully rounded lyrical soprano voice and at certain points in the first act, when his cold wasn’t getting the upper hand was perfectly matched by Bryan Hymel. The alternate casting of Anna Pirozzi, who we last saw as Lady Macbeth might just be a better match for the clarity and almost bell-like quality of Freddie de Tommaso’s Cavaradossi. Alexey Markov as Baron Scarpia was deliciously evil and malevolent, managing to elicit boos for all the right reasons from the audience, although lacking a little in vocal power. In February, Angela Gheorghiu will be singing the role of Tosca opposite Stefan Pop and with Michael Volle as Baron Scarpia
The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House was beautifully conducted by Oksana Lyniv, a Ukrainian who will be taking up the role of Musical Director of the Teatro Comunale di Bologna in January 2022. She will become the first female conductor ever to be appointed as musical director of an Italian opera house. Tonight’s performance by the Orchestra was stellar, with great dynamic range and sensitivity.
What must it have felt like to be in the audience when Tosca was first staged? When we sit in the plush red velvet seats at the Royal Opera House ready to watch one of the best-loved operas in the world, it’s easy to forget that the story it tells is one that had a much closer political and historic relevance for the audience who watched the first performance on January 14 1900. The impact of the French Revolution must have still been felt and the change that it brought across Europe still have been very real.
Just as when I watch War Horse, I remember talking to an old man I visited in my teens who had served in the First World War, the audience for Tosca will have known and understood the context at second hand – perhaps from family members or older friends. It makes a difference. I was told about the mud, the lice that lived in Mr Lewin’s puttees and the brothels he visited. I remember his chronic cough from sulphur gas poisoning. I knew he hid the cakes his wife baked for later in case there was no food. Today, when I watch a film or a play about the First World War, I remember him. How would the audience at the time have seen Tosca and how can it become as real and vivid for us today? The answer, of course, lies in the production. This Tosca by Jonathan Kent was his Royal Opera House debut when it was first staged in 2006. At that time it was the first new production of Puccini’s most popular tragedy at the Royal Opera House in more than 40 years, preceded by an insanely successful version by Franco Zeffirelli first staged in 1964 with Maria Callas in the title role. Auspicious feet to follow indeed. But, it has become a much-loved staging for good reason. It brings the story, the political intrigue, the emotion and the passion to life.
This is the 10th revival of Jonathan Kent’s production, a classic production with sumptuous sets by Paul Brown. It’s an evocative stage on which the story of how politics can invade the everyday, of jealousy, torture, love and murder make for the ultimate operatic tragedy. And, for the audience, it’s easy to be pulled into the moment. The staging feels like a window in time, we peer into a world of high Catholicism and tumultuous politics, where torture and executions are the order of the day. Tosca was based on a play by the French writer Sardou who started to collaborate with actress Sarah Bernhardt in the 1880s with a series of historic melodramas. La Tosca, third in the series, premiered in Paris in 1887. It was popular across Europe and Puccini lobbied to create an opera from the story. La Tosca is set in Rome, following the French Revolution and Napoleon’s invasion of Italy. A republic was established in Rome, but the subsequent withdrawal of French troops in 1798 and the occupation of the city by troops from The Kingdom of Naples set the scene for Tosca.
It’s always a good sign when I want to go back and see a production again. I suspect I might just have to pick between seeing Angela Gheorghiu in February and returning to hear Freddie de Tommaso sing with Anna Pirozzi! Right now a return in December is on my wish list. Meanwhile, if you are looking for a counter to saccharine Christmas shows, Tosca is a great option – a stylish and elegant production with astonishing arias that despite the tragic story will leave your heart singing.
Saturday 11 December 2021 12.00 and 19.30
Tuesday 14 December 2021 19.30
Wednesday 15 December 2021 19.30
Friday 17 December 2021 19.30
Sunday 19 December 2021 15.00
Wednesday 22 December 2021 19.30
Tuesday 8 February 2022 19.30
Friday 11 February 2022 19.30
Tuesday 15 February 2022 19.30
Saturday 19 February 2022 19.30
Tuesday 22 February 2022 19.30
Royal Opera House,
London, WC2E 9DD
For more information and tickets click here.
Looking for a different style of production? We loved ENO’s Valkyrie check our review to find out more.