Angela Gheorghiu; Jonas Kaufmann, Bryn Terfel; Royal Opera Chorus, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Antonio Pappano. Production: Jonathan Kent. EMI Classics 4 04063 9, 120 mins. (opera), 8 mins. (bonus), subtitled
In 2006, Jonathan Kent was charged with replacing Franco Zeffirelli's Covent Garden Tosca, created for Maria Callas, after its run of four decades. Where bigger egos might have chosen to make a statement, Kent spoke simply of devising an arena for great singers to move through. Duncan Macfarland's revival in 2011 showcases Angela Gheorghiu and Bryn Terfel from the original cast, joined by Jonas Kaufmann.
If dioramas of Rome are what you require, look elsewhere. Paul Brown's solid stage architecture operates by suggestion, and his period costumes take discreet liberties — an eminently satisfactory big picture, in other words. But what matters most is Kent's microscopic attention to verbal, musical and theatrical nuance, mirrored throughout in Antonio Pappano's skill in fusing Puccini's Technicolor atmospherics and sharp narrative close-ups into a magisterial cinematic flow.
Here is melodrama in excelsis — plotted like clockwork, pulsing with life. Consider, for instance, the way panic resolves audibly and visibly into exhausted relief when the fugitive Angelotti locates the hidden key to a family chapel. Angelotti passes through the opera like a dim comet early on and is never seen again, yet in the towering, haunted Lukas Jakobski, he registers as the protagonist of a full-fledged tragedy of his own. A muted, disappointed Sacristan, Jeremy White forgoes shtick for character. Even John Morrissey's laconic cynic of a Jailer comes across as a man with tales to tell.
But Tosca stands or falls by the principals. Kaufmann and Terfel, in particular, goad each other to incandescence. In Cavaradossi's Act I reverie, Kaufmann's startling clarion tones impart an edge of the ferocity he later summons up in the clutches of Scarpia, yet he scales back the final phrase, seamlessly, to end on a note of pure romance. Epicurean in his tastes, savage in appetite, Terfel's Frog Prince of a Scarpia cuts from silken gallantry to the raging roar of a beast with equal ease. Many great artists have put their signatures on these iconic roles over the past 113 years, but I wonder: has anyone had the imagination and the voice to realize them more completely?
Gheorghiu prefers to play what she thinks of as herself. "I am not a tiger," she said before the 2006 premiere, promising a Tosca who would be (in her forties) "really fresh, feminine and young."
She kept her word. Radiant in a marigold day-ensemble and coral hair ribbon, Gheorghiu wafts through Act I with balletic grace. Resplendent in diamonds and a snow-white evening gown, she endures the tortures of Act II with polished composure. Hair down, jewels stowed, she tiptoes through Act III on air, still spotless in her white dress, though the safe-conduct pried from her victim's corpse is soaked in blood.
Hardly your textbook Tosca. Yet even Met audiences unbewitched by Gheorghiu's complacent art may get her message this time. The transparency of her timbre and delicate tints of grief and rapture are ravishing, and for a change, her exquisite instrument does not drop out below her upper range. We may have the sound engineers to thank for this — or could it be that she simply functions better in London? Covent Garden is half the size of the Met, and audiences there eat out of her hand. Fight her charms if you can. She's one of a kind.