It's a cliché to wheel out Joseph Kerman's famous of description of Tosca as a 'shabby little shocker', but it's hard to imagine a production more shabby and, paradoxically, disappointingly unshocking, than Stephen Barlow's updated version for Opera Holland Park. And it's not the fact that the rickety set is prone to falling to pieces – Angelotti's fumbling for the key in a wall mounted font caused it to clatter to the ground on the opening night – but that in its overpronounced verismo sordidness all the characters but Tosca herself are unimposing, unsympathetic and, one feels, undeserving either of her or the audience's attention.
The facilities at Opera Holland Park present a particular challenge for the director but Barlow's choice to have all the action take place in the same Roman piazza stretches the audience's imagination and in a production that strives for realism it's difficult for one to suspend disbelief. Great effort is made in Act One to show what a bustling thoroughfare this piazza is so that one has to wonder how the attempted rape and murder in Act Two, with attendant operatic protestations, can go unnoticed. The idea of Cavaradossi being imprisoned in a public space in Act Three, similarly, pushes the boundaries of what we can be expected, as an audience, to accept. An additional disadvantage of a final act with no battlements is that one spends a lot of it wondering how Tosca is going to finish herself off. In the event, the same clapped out Fiat that gave momentary refuge to Angelotti at the start is awkardly called into service for both Cavaradossi's execution and Tosca's defiant suicide.
The back wall is plastered with advertisements for Tosca's latest record and 'Vota Scarpia!' posters both of which helpfully, if rather insistently, inform us that we're in the year 1968, a year of General Elections in Italy. The synopsis is carefully rewritten to remove the work's own specific references to history: Napoleon's victory at Marengo becomes diluted as 'victory over the establishment' watched eagerly on a café television; the 'Te Deum' is recast as 'political and religious celebrations'. The power of the opera's historical foundations, rightly emphasised by Gavin Plumley in his programme essay, are thus fatally undermined, and the words coming out of the characters' mouths often simply ignored.
Even more destructive for the opera's dramatic verisimilitude is the characterisation of Scarpia. First of all, Nicholas Garrett is hopelessly overparted in the role: his voice is simply too small and, with no power at the top of the range, gets lost in the moments of greatest drama. He is portrayed as a small-time Mafioso who is too unappealingly thuggish and charmless. There is none of the depth that is integral to his character, none of the twisted Catholicism or belief – however misguided – that he's a civilised man, that make him both a rounded and truly shocking dramatic creation. As such his proclamation at the climax of his 'Te deum' that Tosca makes him forget God is meaningless.
As Cavaradossi, Séan Ruane might lack a truly seductive Italianate timbre but started well with an impressive, ardently sung account of 'Recondita armonia'. He struggled, though, as the opera progressed to sustain the same easy vocalism: there were some precarious top notes; the voice became unattractive and intonation wayward under pressure. Recast as a pavement artist, though, one begins to wonder why a star like Tosca would be interested in him and the kissing and grappling that punctuated their finely delivered First Act duet does little to persuade us that their attraction is based on some irresistible chemistry.
Standing out like a beacon in this sordid drama is Amanda Echalaz's Tosca. She was the most impressive vocally of the cast and the top of the voice was rich and thrilling even if she struggled to project some of the lower-lying passages. Every inch the diva in her beautiful designer outfits and big shades, she was played as a class act. Her moving 'Vissi d'arte' seemed even more dramatically incongruous than it usually does in a Second Act where we wonder why she doesn't simply brush such an unimposing Scarpia aside, slap him when he gropes her or send him scurrying off with a withering glance. An obvious celebrity, it's simply impossible to imagine her getting dragged down into this drama's squalid goings-on.
Of the rest of the cast, Simon Wilding made a strong impression as Angelotti and John Lofthouse made a more sinister Sacristan than usual. Much of the playing of the City of London Sinfonia was excellent, particularly the solo work, and Philip Thomas generally paced the score well, even if the reading often lacked dramatic bite and there were several moments of poor coordination between pit and stage.
On one hand, Stephen Barlow deserves a certain admiration for sticking to his guns with his production and seeing his concept through to the bitter end. However, very little of what he comes up with seems truly new or thought-provoking. There are some interesting ideas but not enough to add up to a convincing reappraisal of this iconic work. In the end, the attempts at realism make the opera less believable and the attempts at charging it with extra political and historical significance simply neutralise what's already there.
By Hugo Shirley