The Observer, May 18, 2008
by Anthony Holden
Puccini: Tosca, London, ROH, 12 May 2008
He came, he sang, he conquered
A stellar cast was put in the shade by a simply unforgettable performance from Jonas Kaufmann
Once in a while, but as rarely as the sun shines on a first day at Lord's, one singer can singlehandedly lift an opera from the level of mere excellence into the realms of the unforgettable. Such is the contribution made by German tenor Jonas Kaufmann to the Royal Opera's revival of Tosca, in which his exquisitely sung and affectingly acted Cavaradossi makes the rest of an impressive cast look and sound rather ordinary.

In her Covent Garden debut, the full-throated Italian soprano Micaela Carosi would otherwise have raised the roof in a title role originally staged for Angela Gheorghiu. As the lecherous police chief Scarpia, rotund Italian baritone Paolo Gavanelli borders on the definitive, were it not for memories of Bryn Terfel's chilling performance in the 2006 premiere of Jonathan Kent's stately staging. But Kaufmann's thrilling combination of stagecraft and musicianship relegates both to the second rank.

His first big aria, 'Recondita armonia', is delivered with such luminous power and beauty that the audience catches its breath, suddenly aware it is in the presence of something very special. His cries of 'Vittoria, vittoria!' in the second act leave the eardrum athrob. In the third, his 'E lucevan le stelle' is acted as touchingly as it is sung, delivered with such delicate virtuosity as to put countless hammier, sob-in-voice tenors to shame.

Stephen Barlow's revival of Kent's production is full of fine detail, such as Scarpia peeling his apple on to an unwelcome messenger, and the devout Tosca gently placing a candle on each side of his corpse, in time to the music, after ferociously stabbing him to death. But the significance of the giant wing hovering over the Castel Sant'Angelo in the last act still eludes me; the best explanation I have heard was my companion's - that it symbolises an angelic ascent to Heaven for the two principals left dead at the end. In which case, Cavaradossi's is richly deserved.

The evening's other star is Antonio Pappano, who wrings from his fine house orchestra the deeper darkness - at times shockingly malevolent - that lurks beneath the sheen of Puccini's wondrous score. Paul Brown's monumental sets require two half-hour intervals to change, turning what should be a taut, intensely dramatic evening into a long, lingering one - but on this occasion it is worth it, to savour the Kaufmann phenomenon.

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