It has been a long wait. The last time two British singers took the principal roles in Puccini’s Tosca at the Royal Opera House was in 1954. Last week, snow blanketed much of south-east England, but that didn’t stop star tenor Freddie De Tommaso reaching for his shovel in his native Kent to dig his car out, we’re told. He wasn’t going to miss making a little bit of history opposite the Welsh soprano Natalya Romaniw.
Her long-awaited house debut in yet another revival of Jonathan Kent’s rock-solid production, first seen in 2006, was a huge moment in Romaniw’s career – one that has soared ever upwards since she was introduced to music as a child by her grandfather. He would take her to Swansea’s Ukrainian club to hear big voices sing the songs of his homeland. How proud he would have been to see her last week.
De Tommaso made his name a year ago when he stepped into the role of Tosca’s lover Cavaradossi halfway through a performance, when the tenor Bryan Hymel was taken ill. De Tommaso was a sensation. That time, Tosca was Elena Stikhina. In his later, scheduled performances, De Tommaso was cast opposite Anna Pirozzi, haughty and implacable in the role, every inch the jealous diva. How would Romaniw portray the proud opera singer, desperate to protect the man she loves from the evil chief of police, Scarpia? Her answer: as a comparatively naive younger lover, without a complex past.
As with her portrayal of Tatyana in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin for Garsington and Scottish Opera, there is a grounded humanity in everything Romaniw does. It serves her well when she is able to laugh at the extremes of her jealousy, and when, in the final act, she sings of her doomed hopes for the future. But in Act 2, faced with the horror of Cavaradossi’s torture, the necessary panic and cat-like instinct to protect him seem to desert her, the drama sagging in the prelude to murder. Perhaps it was unfair to put this debutante up against super-confident Erwin Schrott’s Scarpia. If he’s terrifying for the audience, what must it be like to sing opposite him?
For all this, Romaniw’s ace card has always been her voice: rich, creamy and warm, and here particularly luminous in her central aria, Vissi d’arte, which began a little uncertainly but grew in confidence until it glowed like a hot, burning sun.
De Tommaso is in a class of his own, his Italianate tenor tailor-made for this repertoire, rich throughout the range, supple and totally musical. And boy, is it strong. His top B flat “Vittoria!” when Napoleon’s victory in battle is announced will have rung in the audience’s ears for days. Daniel Oren conducts. There’s just time to see a bit of history for yourself.
The Queen Mother was a wise woman. In 1951, after the premiere of Constant Lambert’s ballet Tiresias, she wrote to Covent Garden head David Webster, assuring him that it would be a great success, but that “we do not bring the kind of audience that responds well to a first performance of this kind”. Two years later, Benjamin Britten rebuffed Webster’s warnings and insisted that his coronation opera, Gloriana, should be given its premiere in front of the newly crowned Queen Elizabeth II. There followed, according to the new monarch’s cousin the Earl of Harewood, “one of the great disasters of operatic history”. An audience made up of 32 royals, myriad heads of state, peers, diplomats and cabinet ministers greeted the work in near silence, their polite applause (muffled by evening gloves) allowing just three curtain calls, according to Britten’s biographer Paul Kildea.
Seventy years on, and what a contrast: English National Opera’s concert staging drew wild applause – but that 1953 audience wasn’t entirely wrong. It’s a rum old work, depicting the last days of Elizabeth I. Beset by war in Ireland and her struggle between love for the Earl of Essex and her duty to execute him for treason, she dies a broken woman. Hardly a celebratory piece; some might say subversive. Imagine staging the bloody demise of Charles I to mark next year’s coronation of Charles III.
By stripping Gloriana of scenery and dressing only the principals in costume, director Ruth Knight took away the flummery and breathed new life into the plodding, episodic plot. And using side boxes for the wind and string bands to play Britten’s masterly mock-Tudor dances lent some clarity to this restless, middle-period score, realised magnificently by the ENO orchestra under Martyn Brabbins. (Judge for yourself: Radio 3 broadcasts it on 13 January.)
When a baritone of the stature of Willard White is cast in two minor roles, you know that the standard of singing is going to be high. Christine Rice gave a towering performance as Elizabeth: by turns implacable, peevish and vulnerable, but always vocally secure. Robert Murray sounded suitably heroic as the headstrong, unlikable Essex, vying with his rival, Mountjoy (Duncan Rock). And there was fine singing from David Soar as Sir Walter Raleigh and Paula Murrihy as the Countess of Essex.
Eleanor Dennis was particularly touching as Penelope, Lady Rich, pleading for her brother Essex’s life. This is a role created by the soprano Jennifer Vyvyan (1925-75), who had a long association with Britten’s music. So it was a happy coincidence that the counter-tenor James Bowman unveiled a plaque to Vyvyan’s memory at her former Hampstead home on the day that Gloriana was staged. Britten wrote several operatic roles specifically for her, including Tytania in his enchanting A Midsummer Night’s Dream, an opera with a far more felicitous history than the coronation catastrophe.
Star ratings (out of five)
• Tosca is at the Royal Opera House, London, until 21 December