Tosca - Opera Holland Park, 1 July 2008
Some commentators think Tosca shouldn't be mucked around with because its historical setting is so specific. June 17 1800, the aftermath of Napoleon's victory at the battle of Marengo, is a date that Puccini took great care in researching and reproducing for the stage, right down to getting the background Te Deum note-perfect.
But Stephen Barlow’s ingenious Opera Holland Park Tosca whips off the tired old pantaloons and updates the background turmoil to Rome in 1968, a year marked by violent student demonstrations and extremist clashes. And a few little quibbles aside, it works. That's because, despite all Puccini's attention to detail, in the opera he ended up writing the history is the wallpaper, not the drama. It's all about the personal relationships, and if you can ignore the odd reference to Napoleon, the real signficance of the context is in the more general sense of social turbulence.
The historical proximity clarifies the social distinctions, even if it's not quite apparent whether Scarpia is a police chief, politician, mafioso or all three. But he's suavely attractive in his immaculate suit, an unusually appropriate catch for the glamorous Callas-like Tosca. So her rejection of him only emphasises the depth of her love for the scruffy bohemian Cavaradossi.
It's set entirely outside in a piazza. This incorporates the unavoidable backdrop of Holland House's garden wall into church and cafe exteriors plastered with Scarpia's electioneering posters and Tosca's concert flyers. Act I's church interior scene is played outside its door, Scarpia's Act II room becomes the neighbouring cafe, and the Castello Sant'Angelo of Act III is the the piazza itself.
The ancient Fiat on stage throughout plays a crucial part in the final scene - Cavaradossi is pushed into it to be shot, Godfather-style, and Tosca leaps on to its roof to immolate herself in place of the traditional leap from the battlements. Details are well thought out, with a procession of locals adding colour to the bare set, and a picture perfect trattoria. A couple of props fell off the wall on this first night, but that sort of thing can happen anywhere.
Amanda Echalaz was a stunning Tosca, with a big, creamy sound and plenty of stamina. She was far more effective in the role than the unsubtle Micaela Carosi in Covent Garden's recent production. (Amanda Echalaz and Jonas Kaufmann - now that would be a team.....).
Seán Ruane can certainly act, but his workmanlike tenor couldn't last the course, and his Cavaradossi was rather monochromatic and dare I say it, English (even though I'm guessing from the name he's Irish). Nicholas Garrett's Scarpia was so menacingly persuasive that it was easy to overlook the fact that his bantamweight baritone is a complete miscast. Other than his voice getting lost now and again, there were few drawbacks. And when Scarpia is several degrees hawter than Cavaradossi, Tosca's choices are cast in a completely different light. The other parts were very solidly cast too - I particularly liked Simon Wilding's Angelotti and John Lofthouse's meddlesome Sacristan. A sturdy, unshowy reading from Phillip Thomas in the pit completed the musical side most effectively.