Opera Holland Park – Tosca

Tosca – opera in three acts to a libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa & Luigi Illica based on the play “La Tosca” by Victorien Sardou [sung in Italian with English surtitles; orchestral reduction by Tony Burke]

Cesare Angelotti – Simon Wilding
Sacristan – John Lofthouse
Mario Cavaradossi – Seán Ruane
Floria Tosca – Amanda Echalaz
Vitellio Scarpia – Nicholas Garrett
Spoletta – Benjamin Segal
Sciarrone – Henry Grant Kerswell
Boy – Timothy Posner
Captor – Duncan Rock

Opera Holland Park Chorus
W11 Opera for Young People (Children’s Chorus)

City of London Sinfonia
Phillip Thomas

Stephen Barlow – Director
James Clutton – Producer
Yannis Thavoris – Designer
Peter Mumford – Lighting Designer
Chrissy Madison – Costume Supervisor
Ron Freeman – Wigs and Make-up
Alison DeBurgh – Fight Choreographer
Paul Hastie & Richard Dearsley – Surtitles Translation and Operation

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 1 July, 2008
Venue: Opera Holland Park, London

Amanda Echalaz. Photograph: Geoff LloydAfter 108 years can there be anything new to say about Puccini’s “Tosca”? You may not think so, but Stephen Barlow’s production takes the piece in a completely new direction. One critic labelled “Tosca” as “a shabby little shocker” and Benjamin Britten called it “sickening”. Is it any more “sickening” than “Billy Budd” or “Peter Grimes”? Having received a mixed reception at its premiere, “Tosca” soon became the popular piece that it has remained – be it shabby or sickening. What we are dealing with here is melodrama of the highest order, here heightened by Opera Holland Park – one of the best productions it has staged.

To begin with and to circumvent the awkwardness of the wide but shallow stage that is Holland Park Theatre, Barlow, and designer Yannis Thavoris, have turned the locations inside out and telescoped them into one. Puccini sets his first act inside the Roman church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, the second act in Scarpia, the Chief of Police’s room at the Farnese Palace, and the last act on the battlements of the Castello Sant’Angelo. At Holland Park the action takes place outside the church in the Piazza Sant’Andrea, in the adjacent Bar Farnese and at some unspecified off-road location. The action is updated to 1968, another time of revolution in Italy and elsewhere. This is a radical change, not unlike Jonathan Miller’s updating to New York in the 1950s for his English National Opera production of “Rigoletto”, but it has been figured out in such fine detail that it works beautifully without any incredulity setting in.

The church is plastered with posters for the Christian Democrat and Communist Parties and some of Scarpia, who rules Rome with a rod of iron, side by side with those of the singer Floria Tosca and her next performance. Angelotti, the escaped prisoner, is a young rebel seeking sanctuary in the church. His sister, the Marchesa Attavanti, is the subject of the picture that Mario Cavaradossi is creating in the Piazza, as a piece of street-art. Tosca is dressed in pop gear, bright yellow coat and long white boots, as per the fashions of the time. And, in another odd switch, the production turns the usually repellent Scarpia into a younger, more charismatic guy with an all-too-obvious sexual attraction in his sharp Italian suit and black shades. When he makes Tosca believe that Mario is two-timing her with the Marchesa, the singer almost falls into his arms, whereas normally she cannot abide him. She pulls back but Scarpia is obviously much taken by her as he reaches into his trouser pocket … Once more with feeling?

The second act in which Tosca pleads with Scarpia for Mario’s life in return for sexual favours is set outside the bar next door to the church. Eventually everybody goes home, leaving Tosca and Scarpia alone. Unfortunately the waiter takes the knife that Tosca was going to use to kill her enemy, so she is forced to improvise and it is a surprise action when it finally comes. There is no written safe conduct letter for Tosca; instead Scarpia dictates it over the phone. (No doubt, if it were set today, it would be a text message.) Her next problem is where to hide the body and that too is solved in an ingenious way. In the last act, with the ‘pretend’ killing of Mario, which turns out to be a real assassination, Scarpia’s henchman pumps bullets into Mario as he sits in a Fiat (note the nameplate) that has been visible throughout. The last problem for Tosca: with no castle battlements to jump from, is how to escape the clutches of the police and commit suicide? That is the last surprise of the evening and it’s absolutely bloody brilliant!

With a new reading that reinterprets events so well, dare one ask for more? Luckily the cast boasts incredibly good performances from the three principal singers. Seán Ruane’s Cavaradossi is bold and positive, strong-voiced in a performance of great nuance and three-dimensional in the acting stakes. He is a political rebel and you can believe he loves Tosca but also that he would not be above flirting with the subjects of his paintings. His aria ‘E lucevan le stelle’ provides a moving farewell.

Scarpia, as played by Nicholas Garrett, is a real smooth operator who can appear to be good-hearted while underneath he is a volcano of evil and cruelty waiting to erupt. Garrett’s Scarpia is excellent and combines the obvious attraction he has for women that is sexual rather than being a man of position. His obsession with Tosca is very apparent in ‘Ha piừ forte sapore’.

You could not ask for a better Tosca than Amanda Echalaz. At one moment she is skittish and playful around Mario; then she is jealous of him and believes he is seeing another woman; then she nearly succumbs to Scarpia’s evil charms, but finally summons up enough strength to kill him. But Tosca is an actress as well as a singer and is capable of producing the right mood for the occasion; Echalaz conjures all of the tempers required in a commanding performance. Her ‘Vissi d’arte’ is heartfelt and elsewhere she keeps you on the edge of your seat. The final moments, after she discovers that Mario is really dead, are worthy of the master of suspense – it is a truly Hitchcockian moment.

There is excellent support from Simon Wilding as an earnest, urgent and youthful Angelotti, while John Lofthouse fusses to good effect as the Sacristan. The Chorus and Orchestra under Phillip Thomas pull out all the stops to make Puccini’s score as exciting as ever. This production shines a new light on a classic piece.

  • Tosca is at Holland Park Theatre on July 3, 5, 7, 9, 11 & 13 at 7.30 p.m.
  • The performance on the 9th is a Charity Gala in aid of Venice in Peril
  • Box Office: 0845 230 9769
  • Tickets £10.00 to £52.00 with some concessions
  • Opera Holland Park

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