“Where else can you pay £16 and experience world class opera?” enthused the man next to me, enthusing likewise to his son, at his first ever opera performance. Normally I am as enthusiastic about value for money, and credit must go to Arts Council for heavily subsidising the ROH, otherwise tickets would be at least a third more expensive. Normally I am a boring proselytiser for value for money/accessibility (as opposed to being normally just boring.) We were, the man said, being treated to world class opera in one of the top five opera houses in the world with top name stars.
In fact, one can pay slightly more – and slightly less- and experience world class opera on other world class stages, e.g. Munich, Paris, albeit sometimes with not as good a view as our stalls standing places. And in fact one can pay £16 at the Royal Opera House (actually more than the usual rate for my “seat” because of Gheorghiu) and experience non-world class opera, left disappointed by the entire evening despite all hopes to the contrary.
Hopes: which rested on, mainly only Angela Gheorghiu. Disappointment: from the whole affair: singing, playing, acting. Gheorghiu bravely committed herself to the act. In places she was vivid, and began to convince. Then she interacted with someone else less good and the illusion fell away. The revival direction felt a little stale, and thus her commitment was de trop, and looked misplaced.
Watching the proceedings, one felt that Gheorghiu may finally have outgrown Tosca, or more worryingly, Tosca may have outgrown her. This wasn’t quite, I decided a diminishment of ability, more an evolution of voice finding itself changed from how it used to soar. (She was on reflection, given little chance to soar.) As is often the case, strident declamation worked well, softer moments too, but I didn’t feel any true distinction, nor any special quality in this night’s performance. “Vissi d’arte” came and went, and ended saluted by polite applause. A better moment came near the close of Act II at this Tosca’s angry shouts of “muori! muori!” which were splendid in their vehemence. Her immediate anguish and contrition after murdering Scarpia was genuine in appearance. A strong presentation dramatically, all the more sad for being played against weaker.
For sadly, everything else was weaker. There was a slightest faint hint of ardency between her and her Cavaradossi (Riccardo Massi). I was hoping for a lambent flame, carrying their love to the stars – or to the grave – and instead got an extremely damp squib. Mr Massi’s voice was not to my favour (which matters little to others, but immensely to me.) It seems somehow constricted, noticeably boxed-in, and lighter in emission and production than I would have liked. His acting in the preparation for “E lucevan le stelle” was actually quite finely drawn, one saw the look of memory and pain pass on his face, a steeling of the self before this exquisite musical soliloquy began, only it wasn’t exquisite at all.
Clarinets were squawky where I prefer mellow. The fomenting thoughts were good but their presentation and execution pedestrian, without inner belief. That said his actual execution was good*, and not because I was glad I wouldn’t have to hear him sing any more. Musically, dramatically, narratively I was left cold.
A big problem for me was Samuel Youn, not a singer I have yet come to admire. The big problem is that he is too small to be Scarpia, in stature and thus in voice. I have seen him in Bayreuth as The Dutchman and was there underwhelmed. Shorter than Gheorghiu, he has to work hard to convey gravitas, and works too hard. Mr Youn here relied on bug-eyed posturing. Rocking back and forth on his feet his hands bunched up, he was frenzied in his passion for Tosca, manic in his singing with her. The effect was vivid, but for the wrong reasons. The impression was to render this villain a pantomime caricature. (The scenery carried bite marks all over.) Vocally, the famous “Tosca, you make me forget my God” moment didn’t distinguish itself by standing out from the background blare. Youn also has a habit of heavily emphasising first syllables, which becomes a bit tiresome.
If too much realism can sometimes seem too sterile, too robbed of any magic, this was too the case with the conducting. Where was the flow and lyricism in Emmanuel Villaume‘s conducting? Significant motifs passed without intelligent dressing or appeal. At least Pappano invests his Puccini with lustre and emotional commitment. No such luck here. Also, I’m not going to suggest a metronome is needed to tick and tick by Mr Villaume’s right hand, but a little more care with some of the tempi would have helped immensely.
(*This may have something to do with the fact that he used to be a stuntman.)
PS: thanks go to David Alden for correcting my horrible Italian and terrible memory.