Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Tosca review – Puccini’s classic updated to 1960s Rome at Opera Holland Park

28, 30 May, 1, 7, 9, 12, 15, 18, 22 June 2024

A revival of Stephen Barlow’s highly acclaimed 2008 production.


Tosca (Photo: Ali Wright)

Tosca is one opera that few directors choose to set in anything other than its original time and place. This is because the action occurs at such a specific time, namely the afternoon, evening and early morning of 17 and 18 June 1800, that it is hard to work against the intended backdrop of the Battle of Marengo. There are exceptions to this rule, however, such as Luc Bondy’s 2009 production for the Metropolitan Opera. Without making any changes to the libretto, or ever explicitly stating that we were not in the year 1800, he implied a setting of 1930s Fascist Italy through the architecture of the buildings in Richard Peduzzi’s sets. Stephen Barlow’s staging of Tosca, which first appeared at Opera Holland Park in 2008, also opts for a more recent time in the form of 1960s Rome. The choice works well because it does not demand any specific changes to the story, but it does require some adjustments to the way in which it is presented, and these prove to be highly illuminating. 

Many productions suggest that the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle is a place where religion, politics, police and people all meet, but Barlow reveals how all aspects of humanity are present by deliberately confusing the interior with the street. Yannis Thavoris’ set comprises a large wall with a sign reading ‘Piazza Di S. Andrea Della Valle’, which, when coupled with the Sacristan arriving on a bicycle, suggests an outdoor setting. At the same time, features in the wall such as a shrine to the Madonna under which Angelotti’s sister has left her key, and a door that represents the entrance to the Attavanti Chapel, mean we are simultaneously inside the church. Cavaradossi paints (or chalks) his mural on the floor on the part of Holland Park’s stage that lies in front of the orchestra, like a street artist on a pavement, with the woman he ‘creates’ reflecting 1960s ideas of glamour and beauty. 

The wall also bears posters that paint a picture of Rome in 1968. Some advertise Floria Tosca as ‘La Voce’, but most are political posters that promote the Communists, the Christian Democrats under the slogan of ‘Libertas’, and Scarpia who supposedly stands for ‘Moralità’. While this appears to represent a large departure from the original because the Chief of Police during the Neapolitan occupation of Rome would not have been seeking re-election, the idea works because it provides an appropriate parallel for the 1960s. The ‘Te Deum’ sees the church filled with children, nuns, the well-to-do and supporters of both Scarpia and the left. As the latter are the Chief of Police’s opponents, in 1800 their presence would simply not have been tolerated at all. However, a situation in which the opposition is permitted to campaign, but then treated harshly by Scarpia’s police, is more effective at revealing how oppressive his regime is than one in which it is never really seen in the first place.

Act II is set in the Trattoria-Bar Farnese with Scarpia drinking wine at a table outside, and Cavaradossi being tortured inside as the audience witness the callous reactions of Spoletta (Phillip Costovski) and Sciarrone (Alex Jones) through the glass doors. There is, in fact, an exquisite attention to detail throughout as at the start we see Angelotti despair as he cannot find the key under the Madonna before realising it rests in the Holy Water stoup that lies beneath. The Shepherd Boy is sung well by Angelo Aninag, but he is played as a Boy who delivers bottles to the Trattoria-Bar early in the morning, and thus reveals exactly how Scarpia’s body is discovered. 

“…Barlow reveals how all aspects of humanity are present…”


José de Eça & Amanda Echalaz (Photo: Ali Wright)

Gabriella Teychenné, who shares conducting duties over the run with Matthew Kofi Waldren, elicits focused and precise playing from the City of London Sinfonia. As a rule, she approaches the score in a very sympathetic manner, but she certainly ensures that the drama is brought out to the full at all of the key moments. The children’s chorus, whose members come from Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School and the Grey Coat Hospital School, also makes a strong contribution to the performance alongside the main Opera Holland Park Chorus. 

Amanda Echalaz originated the role of Tosca in this production in 2008 and has gone on to perform it all around the world. Her skills and experience are obvious as her soprano is extremely rich and nuanced, and her performance of ‘Vissi d’arte’ is as multifaceted as her portrayal of the character as a whole. In her initial meeting with Cavaradossi it seems she is as expectant and demanding as she feels she can afford to be, given that she knows she is an arresting character and a star, but overall she comes across as a sensitive and well intentioned person. When Scarpia arouses her jealousy she suddenly appears highly vulnerable, even if some of her reactions suggest that Tosca is, subconsciously at least, playing to an audience in the form of the Chief of Police.

With his firm and strong baritone, Morgan Pearse makes Scarpia a similarly complex figure. He seems as brutal as they come on his first appearance, but, in keeping with him having to fight for election, he is also quite a charmer who often flashes a wry grin. In exploiting Tosca in Act I he is clearly being an opportunist and playing mind games, but there is also an element in which he enjoys being ‘needed’ by her as she reveals her sorrow. Nevertheless, this side to him is never pushed so far as to undermine his assertion that he does not know how to coo like a turtle dove. In fact, in Act II he is particularly savage towards Tosca, even when he is aware that Spoletta and Sciarrone are watching. During the ‘Te Deum’ we also see the two sides to his character as he stands alone revealing his obsession with the singer before jovially shaking hands with all of his supporters. 

On his OHP debut, José de Eça reveals a brilliantly expansive and ringing tenor that shines in Cavaradossi’s ‘Recondita armonia’ and ‘E lucevan le stelle’. It is not unusual for productions to suggest that the artist realises as soon as he is informed of Scarpia’s death and the ‘mock’ execution that neither he or Tosca will be escaping alive. However, de Eça makes this particularly clear as the contrast between his internal despair and his outward attempt to ensure Tosca’s final moments are happy ones, by encouraging her to picture the perfect life they will have, is very stark. The minor roles are all played well, but Ross Ramgobin, with his persuasive baritone, stands out as the Sacristan. There is something highly amusing about him singing ‘Angelus Domini nuntiavit Mariae’ while munching on part of Cavaradossi’s lunch, and lamenting the painter’s neglect of faith during ‘Recondita armonia’ while puffing on a cigarette.

Given that the later Acts in Tosca take place during the hours of darkness, all evening performances at Holland Park are able to exploit the setting of the sun to aid the atmosphere and heighten the drama. The venue is not well suited to depicting someone plunging to their death, but the production overcomes the resulting challenge extremely well. It would be wrong to give away exactly how the ending is presented, but it succeeds in suggesting that in falling to her death Tosca is really flying towards the heavens.

Anna Patalong plays Tosca and Daniel Catalogna sings the Boy on 12 June.

• Opera Holland Park’s 2024 season continues until 10 August. For details of all events and tickets visit its website. 

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