Tosca; La rondine; Arensky Chamber Orchestra – review

Royal Opera House; Holland Park; Cadogan Hall, London

In a top performance of Tosca, Puccini's black thriller which reeks of religiosity and has an ever-shattering score, the earth can move in several ways. With a cast led by three of the greatest singers in the world – Jonas Kaufmann, Bryn Terfel and, in the title role, Angela Gheorghiu – the stampede of applause alone makes the floorboards tremble. It's hard to stay cool in the face of such adoration, and why would you want to?

This was the case in the Royal Opera's end-of-season stellar revival of Jonathan Kent's workable, handsome but stolid production, new in 2006. The curtain call was a delicious mini psychodrama, with Kaufmann, the artist-hero Cavaradossi, taking a simple bow as the audience roared, Terfel equally restrained, provoking a perhaps even more thunderous burst of foot stamping and cheers.

Gheorghiu alone took the opportunity to do a few cheerleader-type waves and "What, me?" pirouettes while the rest of the cast waited benignly. Laying her vast bouquets down at the front of the stage, she went and fetched the conductor, ROH music director Antonio Pappano, at which point the eruption became deafening. For some of us, our applause was for the Royal Opera Orchestra too, who had played superbly and who collectively sustain a phenomenal standard all year.

You may grow weary of an umpteenth revival – though in Tosca terms this production is barely toddling; the Royal Opera's last, by Zeffirelli, endured 40 years. Yet this radical score, with its famed displays of supreme lyricism ("E Lucevan le Stelle" and "Vissi d'arte"), always catches you in some raw, unexpected way. One such moment was when the lecherous Scarpia, standing in Rome's great Sant'Andrea della Valle with mass under way, curses Tosca for "making me forget God", before fearfully, or cynically, joining in the final words of the Te Deum.

Terfel, in every sense a towering and mesmerising presence, gave that sordid show of piety even greater force than usual. He calibrates his anger, vocally and physically, with chilling precision, from political aggression to power-lust to sexual frustration. It's hard to imagine a more lascivious or devious Scarpia. Terfel reveals the tortured, self-loathing complexity of this evil character, too often done merely as a monster.

The other astonishing showstopper was in Act II, when Cavaradossi realises he has been betrayed. The score careers crazily, rapid chromaticisms forcing the music asunder while the trombones bulldoze through with plunging chords, all a prelude to the hero's climactic cry of "victory!". Kaufmann, sensitive to every dynamic marking and nuance, held his top B flat (A sharp in the score) with a vigour which, unimaginably and against nature, grew louder and louder – and yet retained its ringing splendour.

In comparison, Gheorghiu was, well, just Gheorghiu: she has such natural vocal ease that it must seem to her enough just to be there, and it's true, she can still outdo most of her rivals. Stiffened by a starchy, frosted-white gown and peaked tiara, she has a doll-like, milk-toned rigidity, her chilly passion kept under lock and key.

That said, her encounters with Cavaradossi had a discernible chemistry, and her bloodcurdling outburst at the realisation that he is dead, not merely pretending, reminded us why this Romanian diva draws the crowds. You can see this performance at cinemas in the autumn. And book now for Kaufmann, snaffled by Raymond Gubbay for a Royal Festival Hall recital on 24 October – oddly described as a "London debut". Perhaps I was seeing things.

The lustrous pairing of Kaufmann and Gheorghiu first attracted attention at Covent Garden in Puccini's semi-operetta La rondine back in 2004. You wanted to shout "Don't do it, Angela!" when she cast the irresistible Kaufmann, then still a relative newcomer, all doe-eyed and kiss-curls, into lovesick oblivion as the curtain fell. Gheorghiu had already performed and recorded the work with Pappano and her husband, the tenor Roberto Alagna – also now in oblivion, at least in that respect.

Their combined advocacy brought one of Puccini's least performed works back into the repertoire. Now Opera Holland Park has mounted a welcome art nouveau staging, with Renoir and Manet peeping round every corner in Peter Rice's inspired designs. The opening act, a conversation piece, always tends to outstay its welcome, and Peter Selwyn, conducting, might have helped the fine cast and orchestra by quickening the tempi. But Act II bursts into life and from then on, in Tom Hawkes's spirited and alluring staging, it beguiles wholeheartedly.

One of the puzzles about La rondine is how Puccini could embark on such a saccharine story just as Europe, in the summer of 1914, was collapsing into war. It certainly delayed the work's composition, leaving him "absolutely stupefied". On its completion he described it in words that might have been applied to Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier, premiered three years earlier: "A light, sentimental opera with touches of comedy – but it's agreeable, limpid, easy to sing, with little waltz music and lively and fetching tunes… it's a sort of reaction against the repulsive music of today."

The plot has a touching melancholy. Magda, a kept woman with a past, finds true love with a younger man, Ruggero, sung with promising ardour by Seán Ruane. Simultaneously, in a somewhat heavy-handed comic subplot, her maid climbs the social ladder by going off with a poet (Hal Cazalet). Hye-Youn Lee's Lisette scurried pertly, her sweet, clear soprano full of character and a good complement to the warmth and wistfulness of Kate Ladner's Magda – the swallow of the title, who flies from true love for guilty memory. This is vintage Opera Holland Park, with Rigoletto and La Wally still to come.

Puccini didn't specify which particular works he considered repulsive. Was he thinking of the freshly scandalous Rite of Spring or the kind of popular ragtime songs he heard in America with titles such as "Fat Li'l Feller Wid His Mammy's Eyes"? Unexpectedly he had a respectful admiration for Schoenberg, whose earliest masterpiece, Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night, 1899), dates from the same time as Tosca and has a similarly mawkish story behind it, considered obscene at the time: two lovers are torn apart by the realisation that she is expecting a child by another man.

The Arensky Chamber Orchestra, one of several burgeoning young ensembles trying to revitalise concert life, devoted an entire evening to Verklärte Nacht, performing it, in collaboration with the Royal College of Art, variously as a sextet, with readings of the poem (by Richard Dehmel) on which it is based, and with a film of two dancers. The evening concluded, in high style, with the voluptuous string orchestra version, arranged by the composer in 1917. Violinist Stephanie Gonley added valuable experience as guest leader, and these well-drilled emerging young players performed expressively.

The atmosphere was informal and informative. I wasn't altogether sure about having the audience wandering around the stage in the opening sextet performance. It was hard not to follow the intriguing perambulations of the man in red trousers, or a child doing demi-pliés rather nicely. In the end I shut my eyes and the vivid music provoked a fine DVD version in the head. If that was the aim, it worked.


Fiona Maddocks

The GuardianTramp

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