When theatre and performance first came into their own right in Ancient Greece, their purpose was to provide catharsis to the audience – an emotional release identifying yourself with the tragedy of life unfolding before your eyes. Whether the theatre of today keeps up that legacy or not is probably up to the individual, but immersing yourself in the world of Puccini is probably a close hit. Opera is one of those art forms that makes its lifeblood from shaking the soul, and with Puccini’s passionate Tosca at the Royal Opera House the music does hit you in the emotional solar plexus. Full of jealousy, passion and cruelty, it taps into both the ecstasy and tragedy of love in a way that’s fundamentally human, no matter what period it’s set in.
When Cavaradossi helps an old friend escape from prison, he jeopardises his future with his lover Tosca and their lives get caught in the net of the sadistic Scarpia, chief of police in Rome. The story is simple yet hugely effective – their hearts are laid bare from the very start in beautiful arias, and the music is as rich in feeling as it is in playfulness and range. Puccini’s score adjusts itself to its characters, which makes the night an indulgence in the musical shades of human behaviour and emotion. A melodrama of the highest intensity, it has the romantic feel of another time when life and death were both tied up with the prospect of true love. But as the cruelty of the world around them sets its teeth in, Tosca and Cavaradossi’s love is taken to a darker place that grips us right to the very end and provides that rare feeling of release – of feeling the intensity of the music right where it matters. Riccardo Massi’s Cavaradossi sings with a romantic passion that would make women swoon (if we’re sticking with the heightened romance) and Samuel Youn’s contrasting Scarpia has the right depth and dissonance to depict a woman’s worst nightmare. It is Angela Gheorghiu’s Tosca that touches the heart though, with her incredible range of fiery passion and jealousy, and beautiful delicacy in arias that might make you weep a bit if you’re sensitive (yes, I cried).
Paul Brown’s naturalistic design is gothic and romantic if not slightly dusty. It’s beautiful in its own right and paints the world clearly, although it’s not as inventive as it could be – that said, our focus is thereby projected onto the singers and the music, which is probably preferred for most. The general feel of Jonathan Kent’s production comes from this: it’s not overly inventive, and maybe slightly dated for a younger audience that seeks flashing lights and evolving sets, but it does dig deep into the emotional life of Puccini’s music and manages to affect you where it really matters.
Tosca is playing at the Royal Opera House until 5 February. For more information and tickets, see the Royal Opera House website. Photo: Catherine Ashmore.