Watching “Tosca,” it’s always hard to avoid the stars. Our hero sits beneath the night sky in the third act, singing “E lucevan le stelle,” about how they shone upon the heroine he loves. And, courtesy of atmospheric lighting from this year’s Tony winner Mark Henderson, there they are in theater director Jonathan Kent’s Royal Opera debut. But the stars that have caused a box office stampede in this, the house’s first new “Tosca” in 42 years, are of a more living and breathing kind: Marcelo Alvarez as Cavaradossi, Bryn Terfel as Scarpia and Angela Gheorghiu as Tosca. There is, alas, nothing so dangerous as great expectations.
Inviting Gheorghiu to play Puccini’s proud and preening diva seemed ideal. Since her Royal Opera debut in 1992, Gheorghiu’s voice has darkened into a thrillingly dramatic instrument; even in lightweight confections, she has learned how to dominate a stage. And as one of the medium’s rare superstars, she is no slouch when it comes to operatic behavior offstage. Which makes her fey debut in the role all the more perplexing.
In fact, she has played the jealous, loving and murderous heroine once before, in Benoit Jacquoit’s 2001 movie version. With that performance being captured in close-up, she is likely to have been encouraged to feel the role’s emotions rather than project them to an audience. She certainly seems to be doing that here.
Gheorghiu is evidently determined to oppose everything in the standard conception of the role. But if you’re going to reject the fire-breathing Callas approach — in the Royal Opera repertoire since 1964 — you need to replace it with something equally vivid. Swapping rampant jealousy for coquettishness makes no sense of the passions coursing through the score; worse, her performance is so under-energized it becomes inaudible.
It also plays havoc with her relationship with her lover, Cavaradossi. Alvarez has just the right Italianate edge to his voice for the role and wrings emotions out of ringing top notes, but as an actor, he needs all the help he can get. Here he looks stranded because he needs to react to overt passions, which Gheorghiu simply doesn’t give him.
The warmth of Terfel’s voice may not make him the perfect Scarpia, but he shines because his manipulative character controls the relationship (and his diction puts Gheorghiu to shame). Kent keeps him largely center-stage in Paul Brown’s symmetrical first-act set — a period-style church on two levels with a large double staircase — and his imposing physical confidence helps lend the character malevolent power.
That comes to the fore in the second act, set in a flamboyantly ornate, aerie-like study. Despite competition from a massive carved statue of St. Michael quelling a devil — the kind of monumental sculpture beloved of dictators — Terfel looks and sounds perfectly relaxed and threatening in the core scene, where Puccini thrillingly lets rip with 40 action-packed minutes of torture, blackmail and murder.
Terfel again effortlessly runs away with the scene because of the lack of connective fire from Gheorghiu. When Cavaradossi discovers she has saved his life by revealing the secret hiding place, his defiant cry of “Vittoria” should shock the audience but shatter his relationship with Tosca. But there is so little expressed physicality between them that the moment dies. Similarly, Gheorghiu sings “Vissi d’arte” daringly quietly, and flawlessly, but it is so internalized that it makes nonsense of the slow handclap it gets from sneering Scarpia (a predictably detailed touch from Kent).
Matters improve significantly in the brief final act. With the narrative screwed down tight, Gheorghiu armors herself with all that Puccini offers her. Up on the roof, she shows us the terrified but exultant woman desperate to cheat death and escape with the man we now see she loves.
Yet even here, the deepest passion resides elsewhere. Though at a few points conductor Antonio Pappano drives his musicians to such an emotional pitch that the singers are drowned, he teases a gorgeously melancholic introduction to Cavaradossi’s “E lucevan le stelle.” He slows the string introduction down almost to breaking point so that time seems to stand still for the sonorous clarinet solo.
The effect is profoundly moving. But it’s also worrying that in an opera as theatrical as this, it’s the orchestra that wins the award for passion. Kent’s observant production is solid enough to survive in the repertoire for years to come. Ironically, when its star goes out and is replaced with less status-driven perfs, it may look all the brighter.