Dictators are as common as guns; their henchmen are widespread like bullets. Both are commonplace in every era. In today’s world as much as in Tosca’s and Puccini’s.

The plot in a nutshell: three principal characters and a fourth to launch the story, Cesare Angelotti, who escapes from prison and seeks temporary refuge in a church. Mario Cavaradossi, a painter busy painting the Madonna portrait in the same church; his lover, Rome’s diva, Floria Tosca; and a corrupt, political thug, Chief of Police Baron Scarpia. Scarpia lusts after Tosca, and when he suspects Cavaradossi of assisting Angelotti, he seizes the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. He will manipulate Tosca into revealing Angelotti’s hiding place, thereby implicating Cavaradossi and having her for himself. Scarpia’s apartment is within the Palazzo Farnese where Caravadossi is tortured, and where Tosca’s weakness and strength reach a crescendo.

This production is thought-provoking, gripping, and challenging.  It Is a revival of Stephen Barlow’s acclaimed 2008 production of Tosca at Opera Holland Park and fittingly marks the centenary of Puccini’s death on 29 November 1924.

It is set in Rome in the late 1960s (the libretto has June of 1800), the start of a twenty-year period in which Italy was in the grip of anarchy, terrorism, and social turmoil, the so-called ‘Years of Lead’. The setting works brilliantly, affording a fresh take on the main characters. The libretto engages with political reality. The1800 > 1960s time machine devised by Barlow chimes with the prowling police presence on stage and a prevailing sense of fear and oppression.

The set, designed by Yannis Thavoris, is of a church façade plastered with posters of the different parties – from a clenched fist with the Hammer and Sickle of the Italian Communist Party (ICP) to ‘Vota Scarpia’, the leader of the Fascist party. There were a few posters promoting Floria Tosca’s forthcoming performances.

By the church doors on the wall there sits a gilded shrine with holy water devoted to the Madonna and child. God and politics are intertwined.  A blue Fiat 500 with a number plat Rm ANGELO is parked by a ‘Trattoria Bar’. When the bar is open, the softly neon-lit, innocuous-looking, name ‘Farnese’ appears to disguise the secret police Headquarters.

The Fiat is a brief hiding place for Cesare Angelotti, the political fugitive who managed to escape the infamous prison, in Act I, and a macabre location for final executions in Act III.

Edwin Kaye’s Angelotti is utterly engaging in the unfolding events. He masterfully kickstarts the opera, vocally and dramatically.

Amanda Echalaz’s Floria Tosca is a mature singer. Her debut in the opera’s title role was in 2008. She has since sung Tosca countless times in leading opera houses all over the world. Her phrasing, beautiful tone and body language, present a strong and determined woman, with lovely shadings of vocal colour. She captures the essence of the compassionate, tenacious, volatile, complex Tosca. She is uncompromising in her jealousy, and in her love and determination to achieve her goals. She is sentimental yet rational, vulnerable yet unyielding. Her costumes, designed by Yannis Thvoris, cleverly mirror the transition and transformation she undergoes within 48 hours of life-changing events.

Amanda Echalaz’s Floria Tosca

On the night I attended on 07 June, Morgan Pearce’s Scarpia could act but not sing.  Scarpia’s role in any production dominates the stage through his singing and acting. Sadly, this doubling did not really work. Bass-baritone Robert Hayward, whose debut at OHP’s Pagliacci is due on 17 July, stepped in and exquisitely sang the whole part while standing on the right-hand side of the stage, while Pearce was miming and acting the part.  Hayward has the stentorian tones needed to exercise power and the perfect touch and sensual register for insinuating himself into Tosca’s attention and affection.

José de Eça’s Cavaradossi shone at the outset when he sang ‘Recondita armonia’, accompanied by the sacristan’s grumbling countermelody. De Eça is a Portuguese tenor of promise. His love for the diva Tosca was caressing, yet there was little evidence of chemistry between his Cavaradossi and Amanda Echalaz’s Tosca. The first sensuous love duet ‘Qual’occhio’ was engaging. It was sung on the front part of the stage with the orchestra behind it.  De Eça’s voice, when singing from the upper stage, was occasionally overpowered by the orchestra. That aside, his Cavaradossi is young and undemonstrative when it comes to passion.

Ross Ramgobin’s Sacristan is true to his buffo theme. He delights the audience when he is caught munching Cavaradossi’s lunch and in the light-hearted colloquy with Cavaradossi. This opera has no prelude, but this delightful opening puts the audience at ease before the ominous storm of what is awaiting our lead characters.

The OHP’s apron-shape stage cannot accommodate a full orchestra. The skills of City of London Sinfonia’s players under the baton of Matthew Kofi Wadren delivers with aplomb the necessary Puccian’s details, motifs and the powerful drama embedded in the score.

Despite some issues, this production is a thought provoking and enriching experience. Its revival was well overdue.

Opera Holland Park

Music by Giacomo Puccini to an Italian libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa

Libretto: based on Victorien Sardou’s 1887 French-language play, La Tosca.

Running time 2 hours 30 minutes including a 30 minute interval

Until: Saturday 22 June 2024