Wednesday 4 March 2009

Review of "Tosca"

Opera Holland Park rather enterprisingly presented their recent production of Puccini's Tosca at Richmond Theatre. We saw the last night of the run on Sunday 1st March.

The production, directed by Stephen Barlow and designed by Yannis Thavoris, was an object lesson in how to present an opera on a budget. The production's brilliance lay not so much in the decision to stage the piece in 1968 using a single set for all 3 acts, but in the way Barlow made the details of his production mesh with the updating. As ever, the devil is in the detail.

The best updating of Tosca for me remains the Scottish Opera production from the late 1970's which relocated the action to Fascist Italy. But Barlow's new production gives it a close run.

Barlow sets the piece in 1968 against the background of political turmoil, Angelotti (Paul Reeves) and Cavaradossi (Sean Ruane) become hippyish student protesters, reacting against the oppressive local regime of the Mafioso political boss, Scarpia (Nicholas Garrett). The location must be a small town, rather than Rome, but Scarpia is a political operative who has the town sewn up. The backdrop is the local election, which is regarded as a foregone conclusion (as was usually the case at the time in Southern Italy). This sort of detail evidently reflects the type of political control that actually did happen. It is the election, rather than a war, which causes the Te Deum and Cavaradossi's Vittoria outbreak in Act 2.

The set consists of the piazza outsite of the church and the Te Deum is half political rally, with a religious processing leading into the church. The result is theatrically far more satisfactory than the rather lame religious processions going nowhere which often constitute the end of Act 1 of the opera. Nicholas Garrett does not make an obvious Scarpia, he is slighter and far more attractive than most singers in the role. His voice does not easily dominate the stage, yet, but his interpretation grew in stature and you came to believe in his dangerously attractive Mafia boss. He was the type who hides real violence under a stylish exterior. Barlow built on this, making Amanda Echalaz's Tosca struggle with an obvious attraction to the man, despite his dangerous nature.

The area round the church was bestrewn political and other posters, many advertising Scarpia's party and others advertising the singing of Tosca. Sean Ruane's Cavaradossi is doing a huge chalk picture of the Magdalene on the pavement outside the church, a neat solution. Ruane has an attractive Italianate voice and managed to look the part of an artistic drop out.

For Act 2, Scarpia is having his dinner at the Trattoria next to the church, run by his henchman Sciarrone (Henry Grant Kerswell). Spoleta (Benjamin Segal) is a policement and the other men are dubious be-suited types. The Trattoria functions as some sort of unofficial HQ for Scarpia and Cavaradossi is taken into the kitchens to be tortured with a blow-touch. All very convincing and typical of the type of operative that Scarpia is. We overhear Tosca's performance on TV rather than through a window. The actors all made this work, neatly, beautifully and dramatically. You did not feel that you were seeing an awkward updating but a real version of Tosca.

The scene between Tosca and Scarpia was brilliant, really dangerous and sexy. Neither singer quite managed to make you believe this was real and not just acting (few can do that), but they came very close and achieved something striking.

For Act 3 we were still outside the church and, in lieu of an execution, Scarpia's men were planning to simply shoot Cavaradossi, put him into an abandoned car and torch it. At the opening of the act Sciarrone's son (Daniel Harraghy) sings the shepherd boy's song as he brings early morning supplies to the Trattoria. He finds Scarpia's body but panics, hides it again and runs away to fetch his father; it is of course Sciarrone who raises the hue and cry after Scarpia's death in the opera, an example of Barlow's neat way with detail.

In many ways this was a traditional staging of Tosca, Barlow did not try to do anything alarmingly different with the characters. He simply fitted them into his new scenario and allowed it to illuminate things. At the end Tosca immolates herself on the abandoned car using the petrol intended for Cavaradossi.

Amanda Echalaz will be doing Tosca and Liu at ENO in 2009/10. Her Tosca is still relatively light voiced, a young singer rather than a mature one; Echalaz makes the character impulsive, not inclined to the grand diva manner. This was reflected in her musical performance. Her account of Vissi d'arte was touching.

Sean Ruane has a lovely voice and sang Cavaradossi's arias with good open tone, a fine sense of line and musicality. He was a little bit solid, I could have done with more dramatic flexibility, more light and shade. This was reflected in his voice where he seemed to only be able to sing loud or soft. His singing sounded lovely, but I wanted a bit more subtlety.

As I have mentioned, Nicholas Garrett does not yet have the heft required for the really big moments, such as the end of Act 1. But he applied himself musically and dramatically, really making the role work on his term. His scene with Tosca in Act 2 was electric.

The remaining cast were all impressive and formed a cohesive ensemble. I could have wished that stage management had found some fake tan, they all made very pasty Southern Italians!

The City of London Sinfonia under Phillip Thomas gave a convincing and flexible performance of Tony Burke's orchestral reduction. The acoustic at the Richmond Theatre is not ideal, with the orchestra in the stalls, out in front of the stage, and there were moments when the orchestral sound was a bit underpowered. But the musicians generally made us hardly miss the fuller orchestral version.

I hope that Opera Holland Park revive this production again. It is not necessarily my perfect Tosca, but it is certainly a brilliant solution to a particular set of problem, brilliantly executed.

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