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Royal Opera House

FORGETSuperman and Pirates of the Caribbean 2, the summer blockbuster is Tosca, Covent Garden's first new production of Puccini's classic for 40 years, when Maria Callas swept into London and stormed out just as quickly.

This production has two casts, but the A-list one comprises Angela Gheorghiu in the title role, Marcelo Alvarez as her lover, the painter Cavaradossi, and Bryn Terfel in arguably his greatest part, Scarpia, the chief of police.

Jonathan Kent's production, with designs by Paul Brown, is traditional, but then Gheorghiu would not appear in anything else.

It is a success, although with one surprising caveat - Gheorghiu. I cannot review Alvarez, because he was unwell on the night I went and was replaced by Nicola Rossi Giordano from the other cast, who was fine, although seemed to be a touch intimidated by the Romanian soprano.

Gheorghiu herself, though, also appeared inhibited; she just did not fill the room with her usual presence, particularly in the opening act set inside a church with a split-level altar. Indeed her voice, which in productions at Covent Garden in, say, La Bohème, has always been so full and dominating, sounded hesitant and small. I have heard her sing the show-stopping aria, Vissi d'arte, much better in concert.

Although Gheorghiu made a film version of the opera with her husband Roberto Alagna and Antonio Pappano a few years ago, this is her long-awaited stage debut in the role. Were we expecting too much?

Perhaps it was the expectation. She has, since she arrived on the scene in La Traviata more than a dozen years ago, been compared with Callas not only because of her voice but also her dark looks and, unfortunately, her tantrums. Yet her acting, too, was one dimensional.

This, though, did not distract too much from the production because it was well staged and in Terfel they had one of the great performances. The Welsh Warbbler could also have felt intimidated, after all he was playing the part made legendary by Tito Gobbi. Yet Terfel was confident, nasty and totally believable as one of opera's best-loved villains, and the marvellous second act in which he toys and then attacks Tosca while Cavaradossi is tortured is a chilling as many horror movie. Why, though, in his death scene did it take Gheorghiu an eternity to sing those immortal words 'die, die, die" - "muori... muori... [come on Angela spit it out] muori'.

But if it's summer, then it must be Terfel - he was Faust two years ago, again opposite Gheorghiu, and last year played Wotan in Die Walküre, both excellent performances - but he is a Scarpia for modern times and it will be a great surprise if he doesn't reprise the role in the world's other great opera houses.

Pappano, leading the house orchestra, seemed to be thoroughly enjoying himself in what must have been a labour of love and his charges were also on top form.

It might just be another 40 years before we get, or even need, another new production. Meanwhile enjoy this one.

Review by Peter Wilson

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