Tosca, Royal Opera House, London<br></br> Aldeburgh Festival, Snape Maltings, Suffolk

What, just two facial expressions?
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The Independent Culture

Though Kent's production is built to last, the casting of the title role reveals how vulnerable this work is to bad chemistry. During the course of the opera, Tosca must be careless, flirtatious, terrified, incandescent, tender, desperate, defiant, delusional, and, of course, a diva. In a beaded evening gown with a train with the turning-circle of a London taxi, Gheorghiu certainly meets the last criterion. Unfortunately, she has only two facial expressions at her disposal for the greater part of the opera. The first, as directed at Marcelo Alvarez (Cavaradossi), is that of a woman receiving a compliment she believes is her due. The second, as directed at Bryn Terfel (Scarpia), is that of a woman who is mildly chagrined by not receiving the same compliment.

Beautiful as her voice still is, Gheorghiu's singing has become a lazy study of off-the-peg pathos. Her Act II and Act III Toscas are identical to her Act I Tosca: a charming, somewhat self-satisfied, slightly wistful coquette. This makes it rather hard to understand why she would make either man "forget God", and harder still to regard her suicide as an act of resistance, rather than hysteria. Without some indication that her world-view has been brutally shattered by Scarpia, and that she loves Cavaradossi more deeply than she had hitherto realised, "Vissi d'arte" is a vapid party-piece. Terfel's slow, sarcastic hand-clap at its close was singularly appropriate.

One has come to take his luxurious saturation of tone and text for granted. Now it seems as though Terfel is perpetually hungry for the intense theatrical dynamic he enjoyed with Rosalind Plowright, and for the rich ambiguities he brought to the role of Wotan. Good for him, I say. But in Tosca, an opera that should scorch and burn with hatred and desire, his Scarpia is thwarted by Gheorghiu's passivity. Instead, the revelation is Alvarez: a formerly cautious, stolid singer liberated by the right role.

Alvarez holds Act III single-handedly, singing "E lucevan le stelle" with an astonishing variety of tone and expression, and reserving enough energy for an uncommonly touching "O dolci mani", while Gheorghiu plays with her hair. Pappano's conducting, as mentioned above, is totally compelling, not least for its extraordinary blend of violence and sweetness. The chorus and supporting roles, not all of them easy on the ear, are well directed. All the same, this was a frustrating experience, and the second time this year that I have seen Terfel's talent squandered. Killed by a soprano? I should cocoa.

So pity poor Jonathan Kent, whose Covent Garden debut was waylaid by a walking ballgown, and envy Neil Bartlett, whose first ever opera production was with the bright young things of the Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme. Bartlett's smart staging of The Rake's Progress for the Aldeburgh Festival, designed by Rae Smith, and choreographed superbly by Leah Hausman, used minimal materials - a single revolving screen, a curtain, a spattering of scaffolding, a series of hand-held signs and 2-D cartoon crockery - to maximum effect, and supported a very young cast with three excellent silent actors and an equally excellent chorus.

Though the emerging talents of Lawrence Jones (Tom), Sinead Campbell (Anne), and Daniel Grice (Nick) were over-shadowed by the memory of previous opening night performances - Christine Brewer's Gloriana, for instance - Bartlett's production was the best staging of a core-repertoire work that I have seen at Aldeburgh. It was also the best played, with exquisite work from the Philharmonia under Martyn Brabbins. I remain unconvinced that a student cast should handle the pressure of opening Britain's premier music festival - only Canadian mezzo Megan Latham (a brilliant Baba) is ready for this kind of attention - but I'm eager to see more from their director.

Latham excepted, the opening weekend failed to produce any exceptional solo singing. Timothy Robinson's performance of Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings with Richard Watkins, The Hallé, and Mark Elder was merely so-so. Which could also be said of In Memoriam Dennis Brain: a fragment for four horns and strings that Britten wisely abandoned, perhaps when someone pointed out that one theme bears an unhappy resemblance to "Happy Birthday to You".

Extracts from Shostakovich's footie ballet, The Golden Age, were peppy, but this was a slight programme. More exciting by far were the recitals given by the vocal ensemble Exaudi, by Pierre-Laurent Aimard, whose Bartók conspired to turn the Suffolk sunlight into Central European moonlight, and by the Phantasy Quartet. I don't know what keeps their oboist François Leleux at such a pitch of athletic energy and poetic imagination, but whatever it is, I'd like some too.

a.picard@independent.co.uk

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