London felt like its old self on Friday night. Possibly it was just me; when you visit the capital once a week, your impressions will only ever be snapshots. Still, it’s been a while since I’ve battled such a flood tide of commuters on the ramp at Euston, or since the Royal Opera House seemed to be buzzing quite so excitedly. Crowds were four deep at the champagne bar; a latecomer in a spangly tux squeezed past and into his seat, grinning a slightly tipsy apology. And at the heart of it all — the succulent hunk of well-aged rump steak generating all this sizzle — was a revival of Jonathan Kent’s lavish period staging of Puccini’s Tosca, with a marquee name in the title role.
That’d be Angela Gheorghiu, who headlined this production when it first appeared in 2006. Kent’s Tosca succeeded Zeffirelli’s, and Gheorghiu — then at the peak of her vocal glamour — was stepping into the shoes of Maria Callas. Sixteen years on, singer and production seem to have grown together, and the revival director Lucy Bradley has harnessed that energy. Gheorghiu’s Floria Tosca is impulsive but very vulnerable; if her voice doesn’t always carry over the orchestra (and from the first sulphurous brass chords, conductor Marco Armiliato loaded his brush with colour and laid it on thick) it still retains that untethered quality — suddenly looping weightlessly upward, velvety and glowing. When it tails off into silence — and no one does a piteous whimper quite like Gheorghiu — there’s a sweetness and fragility that carries you past the limitations of her acting, with its default setting of downstage arm-waving.
In fairness, the default setting of Kent’s entire staging is only just this side of camp. The high Catholic kitsch of Act One; Scarpia’s cavernous lair; the stars twinkling above the Castel Sant’Angelo in the way that stars only twinkle on theatre backcloths — all this works a treat if you’re in the right mood, especially with a cast and company that are operating on the same outsize scale. Scarpia’s first entry — spotlit, dressed in black, and accompanied by Puccini’s cymbal-topped Chords of Doom — is pure Phantom of the Opera. Michael Volle makes a huge, properly hissable villain: hewing his lines out of black marble, then deliquescing into reptilian sensuality. He wore his malevolence with ease, casually finishing his supper as Cavaradossi (Stefan Pop) screamed in the next room.
Those screams, incidentally, were the weakest moment in Pop’s performance — tasteful, shapely operatic wails that were pure kryptonite to any remaining sense of naturalism. This was his Royal Opera debut as Cavaradossi, and in every other regard he was thrilling. His voice is not conventionally seductive, but his phrasing feels natural, and when he pulls himself up to his full vocal height he can probably be heard halfway down Bow Street (his colossal cry of ‘Vittoria!’ was still burning my ears at Watford Junction). All credit to him for declining to milk ‘E lucevan le stelle’, and setting up Act Three with a jolt of emotional honesty that saw it through to the (more than usually rapid) end. You’ll see subtler Toscas but there’s a place in the operatic ecosystem for star power, spectacle and old-school excess, and Covent Garden is surely its natural niche.
To discuss Opera North’s new production of Handel’s Alcina in this context is impossible without noting the funding gap that still exists between London and regional opera companies. In practical terms, this means there tends to be a point in each Opera North season where you look at the stage and wonder if the money has simply run out. ON has just launched ambitious (and effective) new productions of Carmen and Rigoletto; Alcina, by the look of it, got the fag end of the design budget and director Tim Albery gives us a bare black set, unadorned by the designer (Hannah Clark) apart from a lighting rig, a scattering of vintage furniture and a back projection that renders Alcina’s magical island in grey CGI.
There are various ways of making baroque drama come alive, but even with a score as flamboyant as Alcina, affectless semi-abstraction is probably the least effective option. Despite everything, Albery does find some emotional charge in the tangled relationships. Mari Askvik (Bradamante) sings with fire-and-ice intensity, and Fflur Wyn (Morgana), sounding vivid and tingly, is one of those artists who gives any opera a little boost of energy and focus. As Alcina, Máire Flavin is impassioned, proud and perfectly willing (in the closest thing to a climax) to crawl disconsolately around the stage wearing a bearskin rug. Earlier, Albery had her hiding on the floor behind a cluster of G-plan armchairs. We’re supposed to feel some pity for the fallen enchantress in her humiliation, but even so this seemed a bit much.