Tosca, Royal Opera House, London

Some of the silk may have gone but Pavarotti is still the true professional
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The Independent Culture

The great voice is still undimmed. It was brave of Luciano Pavarotti to return to face his Covent Garden audience in the wake of a close family bereavement. He dedicated it to his late mother, Adele, who died even as he rounded off hectic London rehearsals. And he gave her of his best. Ever the professional.

True, the voice is shedding some of its silk – not all a loss. Something of an edge to the tone in Act I did much to establish drama in a visually superb but dramatically flaccid beginning. But Pavarotti can tweak a scene, as he can titivate his Three Tenors devotees, with a tiny flicker. OK, so he sticks to the voice when he's singing. Visually, he is extremely clever. A flick of the paintbrush, a dab in the palette, a tiny peck, and he establishes not just Cavaradossi – a canny enough chap, until he falls for Scarpia's grisly ploy – but the Tosca-Mario relationship. True, Carol Vaness's Tosca drew the Act I laughs, which at stage was more the text than her rather unpromising acting, after a limp offering from ROH old-stager Henry Waddington's sacristan and a promising, but still only promising, Angelotti from newcomer Graeme Broadbent.

Tosca is fretting about what appears to be her rival's portrait; change the eyes, she wheedles. And Pavarotti does a big dab for the first eye – a laugh, and then a tiny, negligible dab for the second. Comic timing of Hancock quality.

Pavarotti's was a performance laced with small touches, sly wit, wonderful vocal timing. This was terrifically – and always sympathetically to both Puccini's score and singer – managed by Spanish conductor Jesus Lopez-Cobos.

Sergei Leiferkus was a Scarpia of almost Molière-esque deviousness. "I don't coo," he boasts, and then does so, relentlessly, as he prepares Tosca's virtual rape. It was subtler and more musical still, almost surging into sarcastic Rosenkavalier as Scarpia weaves his rotten web.

Renzo Mongiardino's sets are wonderful: the church, with its shadowy recesses, is a masterpiece and a joy to the eye. Better still was the sheer stylishness of Act II: everything – chairs, desk and busts glowers amid Mongiardino's Etruscan terracottas – lit with ingenuity, plus wonderful historical and dramatic instincts, by John B Read. And John Cox's 1991 production came alive – the moves as wellplotted as they were dreadful in Act I.

Vaness's Tosca comes into her own, too. Always vocally impressive, she rises to give a superb performance, her body, almost melting, like a lifeless dummy, to Scarpia's embraces. This was great drama, and her "Vissi d'arte" finally convinced us that this was not just a fine but a great Tosca. Lopez-Cobos held back the Act III opening to almost an adagio; with two such performers, it worked, and both "E lucevan" and the cello-led final farewell brought a gulp to the throat.