Let's all do the Tosca time warp again

Tosca | Royal Opera House, London
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Opening nights generally have an atmosphere of barely subdued hysteria; it's the guilty anticipation of outrage at whatever crazy scheme some young turk of a director may have come up with. Deconstruction, reconstruction, blood, faeces, corpses, modern clothing, lack of clothing? Seen it all before. It's hard to shock an audience these days, but still there is that seductive thought that maybe this time it will happen.

Opening nights generally have an atmosphere of barely subdued hysteria; it's the guilty anticipation of outrage at whatever crazy scheme some young turk of a director may have come up with. Deconstruction, reconstruction, blood, faeces, corpses, modern clothing, lack of clothing? Seen it all before. It's hard to shock an audience these days, but still there is that seductive thought that maybe this time it will happen.

Well there was no chance of that at the opening of Franco Zeffirelli's "classic" 1964 production of Tosca, because everyone knew exactly what they would be getting; big sets, big names, and no tricky stage-stuff (like, say, acting) to interfere with the all-important business of belting out the big numbers. With Roberto Alagna trussed up in tight pants and a frilly shirt and spinning his golden sound over Puccini's money-shot tenor arias, interpretive neologisms were as unlikely a prospect as Tosca using her murder weapon to slice off a piece of prosciutto for Scarpia before breaking into a chorus of "I'm just a girl who can't say no."

Lest this seems like it's about to turn into a Covent Garden-bashing session, I should say straight up that I hugely enjoyed Tosca. The singing was wonderful, the cast well balanced in voice (if not in age), the chorus magnificent, the orchestra - under Carlo Rizzi's good mood-inducing tempi and up-front dynamics - highly accomplished. But I can honestly say I have never seen a production that so completely illustrates the whole notion of suspension of disbelief. And at a far from subliminal level, you were aware that the three leads were quite literally walking in the steps of Callas and Gobbi (1964), Carreras (1979), and Pavarotti (1992) - whose performance as Cavaradossi, I am told, involved rather more sitting down than that of Alagna. Our hero, heroine and anti-hero were on a crowded stage, and not just in the crowd scenes.

It's a good job that Catherine Malfitano, Anthony Michaels-Moore and Alagna were as strong as they were or the inevitable comparisons to retired or dead performers would arise. Malfitano is an old hand at Tosca, and simpers, rages, and smoulders most effectively. Michaels-Moore attempted to bring some subtlety to his role with simmering tones and sardonic glares. But it was hard to avoid camp, what with all the crashing chords that shriek "Baddie!" every time Scarpia even twitches, and his permanently flexed riding-crop just made me think of Dirk Bogarde. Alagna in the meantime concentrated on a kind of noble innocence. He was (if you can use this term for a man) radiant, and the anti-penultimate notes of his arias were long enough to cook an omelette by. But of all the cast, he would have benefited the most from more demanding direction, and probably have given much more in return.

"Classic" is an interesting sobriquet for a production. Applied to cars it means expensive and highly desirable. Applied to sit-coms it means appallingly embarrassing but enjoyable to watch - provided you can do so through the irony that comes with hindsight. Applied to Tosca it means all of those things. Endlessly reviving an old favourite places the in-coming director in a strait-jacket. I'm not sure how much of a Houdini Jeremy Sutcliffe is, but from what we saw on stage his input had been restricted to one peculiar moment in Malfitano's first arm's length embrace with Alagna when she suddenly bit his finger. This foxy little nibble was startlingly at odds with the rest of their very chaste coupling - a chastity that can only have been amplified by the presence of Alagna's wife, Angela Gheorghiu, in the audience.

This set the tone for what was both a benchmark vocal performance (from Alagna at least) and a clear illustration of why opera has had to move away from vocally-led drama. For Tosca is exactly what most people who have never been to an opera think all opera is like! Though there was precious little of the pointless falling over that generally occurs every few bars in grand opera, there was still a plethora of two-party conversations where neither party looked even vaguely in the other's direction. There was a lot of precarious buttock-balancing (tenors only, see Pavarotti), bosom-clutching (denotes passion of tragic or erotic nature, see Callas), and a great deal of waving both arms up and down in parallel as though frisking an invisible basketball player for hidden weapons (fills time while singing difficult bits, see opera). Alagna even achieved the great distinction of carrying out two clichés at the same time in Act Three, singing an intimate duet with the back of Malfitano's head while balancing his left buttock on the gaoler's desk - the operatic equivalent of a triple salko. But the piÿce de résistance fell to the poor Sacristan (Henry Waddington), who had to put a cute little choir-boy over his lap and spank him in time to the music, ho ho. (And this on the same day that the Catholic Church announced its inquiry into child sex abuse.) I guess this might have been funny in 1964 but surely it ceased to be even camp by the 1980s?

It says a lot for Puccini's music that Tosca still has the power to move despite this. Perhaps, like almost all successful art, it's because the opera works at two levels. There is much that is obvious (the music allows little doubt as to the motives of the characters) but there is such complexity in the orchestral underlining of those characters, so much in the way of ambiguous sub-text that the work is lifted clear of melodrama. I suspect that there won't be many more chances to see a Tosca like this. Opera has moved on and though some new productions might make you wish it hadn't, Tosca proves the necessity for artistic evolution. Take the chance to see it while you can, it's a rare experience in time-travel.

'Tosca', Royal Opera House, WC2 (020 7304 4000), to 18 October

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