Review: Tosca – Royal Opera House Live at FACT Liverpool

Gerald Finlay & ROH Chorus (c) Catherine Ashmore

Review by Nigel Smith

JONATHAN Kent’s 2006 production of Tosca, with its louring and traditionally atmospheric sets by the late Paul Brown (to whom the opening night of this revival was dedicated) has won many admirers and is likely to be a staple of the Royal Opera’s repertoire for some time to come.

On Wednesday evening, the performance was streamed live to cinemas worldwide as part of the ROHLive season, and I was invited to view it at Liverpool’s Picturehouse at FACT.

The production takes no liberties with time or place, respecting the requirements of the text in terms of its three distinct settings. The dimly lit confines of both the church and Scarpia’s apartment perfectly match the grim progress of story, and as day begins to break on the far more open and minimal rooftop of the Castel Sant’Angelo, even the pale blue light of dawn can’t lift the weight of the ensuing tragedy.

Andrew Sinclair, who directs this revival, is working with three casts and two conductors during the run, with Dan Ettinger taking the baton for this performance. Here Adrianne Pieczonka’s Tosca is joined by Joseph Calleja as Cavaradossi, while Gerald Finlay makes his role debut as Scarpia.

Ettinger makes the most of the melodrama of the music, wringing every ounce of menace from Puccini’s score at all the right moments. It’s a slightly mannered reading in places, but brings a rich palette of colour from the orchestra and is generous to the singers. Scarpia’s Act I entrance must be one of the most dramatically satisfying ever written in an opera, and has so much inbuilt theatricality that it really doesn’t need the sudden and exaggerated ritardando that it’s given here.

Pieczonka is a fine piece of casting for Tosca. She has a great feel for the dramatic aspect of the part, and isn’t afraid to reign in her voice for emotional effect where necessary. Calleja’s Cavaradossi has tremendously clear delivery but he occasionally pushes too hard, with a tendency to either a very full voice or a sotto voce, and very little in between.

The real revelation in this performance is Gerald Finlay. His rich and very versatile baritone turns to the part of Scarpia for the first time, and he takes to it with great relish. Finlay is a tremendous actor too, and those piercing eyes set beneath his heavy brow are enough to strike fear into the sassiest of divas. There’s a lot of contemporary mileage to be made of the character’s sexually predatory nature, and the current climate in the theatre world naturally adds a layer of extra meaning to the piece. Finlay’s is an insidious and disturbing reading of the role, and Tosca’s closing lines as she leaves him at the end of Act II are delivered with perfect poise by Pieczonka.

The supporting cast has some fine voices, including a distinguished Angelotti from Simon Shibambu along with Jihoon Kim’s Sciarrone and Edward Hyde’s Shepherd Boy.

Direction for the screen and camerawork is generally well considered. There are plenty of wide shots enabling the cinema audience to enjoy the full stage picture, but here and there some of the close-ups are a little too extreme. It’s great to see the whites of a singer’s eyes, but not necessarily their tonsils. Compared to the live experience, the cinema screening affords a great opportunity to see the production in closer detail than even the very best orchestra stalls seat might afford, and it really is the next-best thing to being there.

Tosca continues in repertory at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden to 3rd March and there are also upcoming encore cinema screenings of the performance captured tonight.

Next up in the ROH Live season is the Royal Ballet’s The Winter’s Tale in a revival of Joby Talbot and Christopher Wheeldon’s glorious 2014 adaptation. The live screening is on 28th February.