Tosca BC – before Callas. It's something that's become increasingly hard for any of us to remember, though for the greater part of act one, that's where David McVicar's new staging seemed to belong. It looked good: oppressive black marble setting by Michael Vale, gigantic crucifix bearing down on the worshippers at the Church of Sant'Andrea delle Valle. It sounded good, too, the Te Deum thundering through the Coliseum, with bells and distant cannon as convincing as I've ever heard them. But it felt stale, second-hand – until the moment just before the close of the act where Tosca, goaded by Chief of Police Scarpia into believing that she has been betrayed by her lover Cavaradossi, throws herself into Scarpia's arms, leaving the perfume of desire and lust for him to inhale like Hannibal Lecter scenting his next meal. Now that was definitely not Tosca BC.
The problem with Tosca in English (and, in particular, a translation as terminally arch as this one by Amanda Holden) is that the words are a proverbial cold shower when it comes to passion. It didn't help that McVicar, in his efforts to do more than skirt around the sex-and-religion overtones in act one, encouraged inappropriately kittenish body language from his Tosca: presumably, this just another "performance" from Tosca, the diva. Cheryl Barker, whose excellent diction made her task even harder, was a credible diva, albeit a badly dressed one. Her gown in act two was an aberration on the part of costume designer Brigitte Reiffenstuel. Barker came into her own in this middle act. And so did the nostril-flaring Scarpia of Peter Coleman-Wright – her husband in real life, just to add a little extra frisson.The explicit sado-masochism of this scene (intensified by the dungeon-like gauntness of the set, strikingly lit by Paule Constable) earned the opera that well-worn epithet "shabby little shocker".
Whoever coined the phrase would not have dared contemplate what McVicar had in store. Scarpia is, of course, essentially a rapist whose high is non-consensual sex. Tosca's growing hatred excites him. But McVicar implies a dormant complicity in Tosca – so that when he lies dead by her own hand, the sexual power-game finally reversed, she provocatively runs her hand down his thigh and leaves a less-than-chaste kiss on his lips. Phew. Mr Coleman-Wright will know to watch out next time Mrs Barker feigns a headache.
Barker had a really good shot at Tosca. She looked good and she sang strongly; with temperament, not stinting on the overwrought highs or lows of the role. The colour of the voice was right, the line-readings her own, not Callas's. "Vissi d'Arte" might have had fewer breaths and sobs, but I can name many an international star who has not sung it half so well. So, too, Coleman-Wright, whose lowering stage presence was the right side of melodrama, and whose sense of sung-speech was telling. John Hudson has fewer natural attributes for Cavaradossi, but he didn't short-change us vocally in the big moments.
Mark Shanahan's conducting rightly indulged the honeyed decadence of the string portamento and hit the nodal points forcefully. Only in act three did the playing falter (dodgy solo cello), and I'd certainly like to have heard more from the horns as Tosca made her scheduled leap from the battlements for that pressing appointment with Scarpia before God. Though quite what God will have made of her behaviour in act two, I cannot imagine.
To 17 April (020-7632 8300; www.eno.org)