Nothing is sacred

Opera - Peter Conrad on a <em>Tosca</em> where religion and politics are subsumed by carnal appetite

For David McVicar, operas are orgies. The court of the sexual sorceress in his ENO production of Handel's Alcina was a zoo of feral desires, and his Rigoletto at Covent Garden began with a Renaissance gang-bang (ensuring that some choristers could not use their mouths for singing). In his Glyndebourne Carmen last summer, the tavern had a greasy bordello attached, and the gipsy teased a soldier by tickling his crotch with a flower. Now back at ENO, McVicar's new Tosca treats political and religious schisms as dangerous carnal games, and merges the opera's three settings - a church, a palace and a battlemented castle - into a single black den, a back room or cellar where cruel, lethal fantasies can be acted out.

Body fluids are rankly, poisonously exchanged. Angelotti, the escaped prisoner, seals a pact with Tosca's lover Cavaradossi by dabbling a hand in his own bloody wounds and then embracing his radical comrade. The police chief, Scarpia, enjoying the nervous panic of his underling Spoletta, wipes his hand across the man's coldly oozing face and then licks the sweat off.

When he offers Tosca a choice between sexual surrender or her lover's death, she spits in his eye. Most Toscas compliantly nod at this point (and Puccini's orchestra underlines that helpless gesture), so I did wonder how Scarpia knew that expectoration signalled consent. But since the setting was his dungeon of delicious torment, he must have played this particular game before. In any case, Tosca has earlier indicated her willingness to collaborate: during their first encounter in the church, she collapses into Scarpia's arms when he impugns her lover, and writhes in his sticky embrace.

Desecration spices up these perverse revels. Tosca - supposedly pious, and also supposedly an imperious diva - hurtles into church barefoot, and chucks the Madonna's bouquet on the floor. A metallic cross impends over the scene, but it too turns into a sex toy. When describing Cavaradossi's torture, Scarpia pokes his fingers into the victim's temples, imitating the spiked helmet that, like a crown of thorns, will soon lacerate his head.

Excruciation is just one of the refined delights available in this theatre of cruelty. Revving up to rape Tosca, Scarpia fondles himself with a crucifix; having killed him, she places the cross on his corpse, which lies on the floor in a cruciform posture. She then treats herself to a sly necrophiliac consummation. She fondles the dead man's leg, grips his groin and lingeringly kisses him. Post-mortem stiffening had no doubt already set in.

Repulsive as it all is, it's true enough to Puccini, who equated singing and suffering, and extorted high notes from his characters by hurting them.

What McVicar misses is the Pirandello-esque artfulness and artifice that contra-dicts this brutality. Tosca is a famous opera singer, elated and deluded by her own theatricality, unable to tell the difference between what she calls her own "scenica scienza" and the messy truths of the actual world. She sings at a royal gala in the second act, then delivers her aria "Vissi d'arte" as one more studiously manipulative, self-glorifying performance. Her actressy flummery comes to the fore in the third act, where she brags about the murder of Scarpia in an exhibitionistic octave drop and then rehearses Cavaradossi for what she believes will be a mock execution, cheering his artistry as he dies. McVicar, revealingly, seems ill at ease with behaviour that is so unrealistic, so gratuitously operatic; the last scene has been left undirected, and the singers go through the usual flailingly conventional motions.

Cheryl Barker sings richly and sometimes with thrilling abandon, but the characterisation McVicar has wished on her makes little psychological sense. She should begin as a haughty, self-possessed diva, then go to pieces as the thundering orchestra puts pressure on her. Instead, the development is back to front. In church, she is a wild child, doing a hoochie-coochie dance to distract Cavaradossi and unbuttoning his clothes on the floor beneath the altar. Summoned to the palace, she changes both her clothes and her personality: she is now an expensively glamorous, impertur-bable celebrity - until she decides to make vampirish love to a cadaver. Peter Coleman-Wright's Scarpia, a puffy-faced ogre, is most powerful when silent, or when insidiously muttering. Once he recovers from an erotomaniac seizure in the church, he assumes the impassivity of an unmoved mover, the malevolent deity of Puccini's black mass.

Jumping off the battlements, Tosca vows that she and Scarpia will both be judged by God. Luckily, the words were unin- telligible: given McVicar's view of the work, what Cheryl Barker - who earlier yells "Damn you!" at a portrait of Mary Magdalen - ought to cry out is a scornful announcement of God's death. Despite all those clangorous church bells and the reek of incense, this is a world without a creator, where people lovingly destroy each other while we applaud them for it.

Tosca returns to the London Coliseum, WC2 (020 7632 8300), from 10 March to 17 April 2003