Bring together three of the most intuitive talents (and biggest stars) on the planet, meld them under the baton of Antonio Pappano whose command of every caress, swoon, and dramatic impulse of Puccini’s Tosca is not learned but instinctively felt and you have a recipe for the kind of evening that gives the Royal Opera its truly international status. Not every recipe comes out quite as intended, mind, but as anyone who couldn’t get hold of a ticket will be able to testify at a cinema near them later this year the proof was in the cooking and this Tosca was tasty and then some.
First there was the alchemy of flavours with the most expressive and flexible of all tenor voices right now – Jonas Kaufmann – proving in his first aria and throughout the evening that he is not just a beautiful voice but a consummate artist and a beguiling actor whose ability to find something new to say with each and every phrase brings constant refreshment. His gorgeously dark and inviting middle voice is at the service of melting nuance, tiny hairpin dynamics that lend an intimacy to the grandest of art forms. And there are the thrills – the rafter-rattling top notes that come (apparently) so easily and generate such heat.
There was plenty of that in his first encounter with Angela Gheorghiu’s Tosca. Kaufmann’s ease as an actor raises the Romanian soprano’s game and though her bigger gestures still seem manufactured, the chemistry is unmistakable. Gheorghiu, like Tosca, is a born diva, playful and light on the vocal chords in act one, scornful in act two, and liberated in act three with stonking high Cs and bags of attitude. She doesn’t “chest” (Callas like) but rather colours her more vulnerable lower register turning it into something simpering and breathy for a “Vissi d’arte” that is – in true diva fashion – applause seeking.
It is a nice touch of irony in Jonathan Kent’s staging that Bryn Terfel’s Scarpia offers his own slow handclap of approval after the audience have roared theirs. Gheorghiu doesn’t need to “act” revulsion at Terfel’s sweaty advances. His commanding presence oozes lust and he dispenses it through myriad vocal sneers and chill whispers. How fitting that Paul Brown’s wonderful set here depicts a library devoid of books except those artificially adorning the secret door to the torture chamber. The age of enlightenment may be dead in Scarpia’s domain but this Tosca is very much alive and kicking.