Tosca, Royal Opera House, London – review

In November it will be 90 years since Puccini died, and no opera composer since has come close to matching him in popularity. A further run of 12 performances of the Royal Opera’s handsome production of Tosca, first seen in 2006, is a reminder of how reliant opera companies are on Puccini for their daily bread and butter.

Various combinations of singers come and go through this revival, but most have some point of interest. The days when it looked as if the big voices required for Tosca were dying out happily seem to have passed. However much they lacked in subtlety, this first cast at least had the decibels, the guts, the sheer get-up-and-go to deliver the raw melodrama.

Prime among them was Roberto Alagna, a stirring Cavaradossi. This is not his first appearance in the role at Covent Garden (he sang in the previous production in 2000), but he has changed markedly since then. Where his once lyric tenor became strained in Cavaradossi’s heroic moments, now it sounds a lot more comfortable, turning out a bright, strong, almost searing stream of tone. Only the dreamy reverie of the last aria, as he awaits execution, slipped from his grasp.

The other two principals matched him as tough personalities, though in opposite ways. The Ukrainian soprano Oksana Dyka, making her Covent Garden debut, has a voice to reckon with – huge, rock-solid, a touch strident at the top. But she is no actress: Dyka has already sung Tosca around the world and her hyperactive presence – flashing eyes, waving arms, fidgety hands, all non-stop – looked as if she had every director who has ever coached her in the wings and did not know which to please first.

By contrast, Marco Vratogna’s basically sturdy baritone lacked the penetrative vocal force of his colleagues, and he sometimes resorted to shouting to keep up, but his Scarpia was hair-raisingly fearsome. The torture scene, with Dyka letting rip ear-blasting top Cs and Vratogna unafraid to go over the top, was red-blooded melodrama, though crude and unfocussed. Oleg Caetani’s conducting bumped along from one vivid detail to the next without a clear sense of direction. But despite everything, the opera worked. Of course, Puccini always does.

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