Rome, 1968. A battered Fiat is parked on a dusty piazza. A priest cycles by, pursued by children with water-pistols. Posters cover the walls of Sant'Andrea della Valle: some for the Communist Party, some for the Christian Democrats, some for la voce di 1968, Floria Tosca in a Callas pose. On the pavement an idealised blonde has been drawn in chalk, a Magdalene for modern times. On the shutters of the Bar-Trattoria Farnese, a single phrase has been scrawled in angry red paint: Scarpia Bigotto!
If eyebrows were raised when it was announced that Opera Holland Park would stage Tosca, they should now be furrowed in admiring disbelief at how ingeniously director Stephen Barlow and his designers Yannis Thavoris and Peter Mumford have resolved the spatial limitations of the temporary stage (impossible to leap from the Castello Sant'Angelo here). But by setting the opera in a year when princesses partied with pop stars and middle-class students threw Molotov cocktails, Barlow has narrowed the gap between the opera and us and tightened the vice in which Scarpia, the chief of police, holds Rome. Why torture your prisoners in a dungeon when you can use the street? Why organise a firing-squad when a can of petrol will do?
Faultlessly choreographed from the violent scuffle at the close of the "Te Deum" to the final, shocking image, Barlow's production is thoughtfully characterised and visually arresting, and, in the case of Amanda Echalaz's Tosca, thrillingly sung. Echalaz is now set to be the leading Tosca of her generation. With unforced, candid tone, elegant movement and expressive face, she navigates Act I's little drama beautifully: jealous, flirtatious, self-mocking and proud. In Act II's balletic confrontation with Scarpia, in the numb despair of "Vissi d'arte", the shivering portamenti, the rage and defiance of Act III, every note and nuance is true.
Though vocally on a different level, the supporting cast is strong. Snake-hipped and suave, Nicholas Garrett's Scarpia moves like a dancer. His is a light voice but he uses it imaginatively, conveying more malevolence in his slight frame than many heavy-set baritones. As Cavaradossi, Seá*Ruane projects rough passion more easily than he does a poetic temperament. The supporting roles of Sacristan (John Lofthouse), Angelotti (Simon Wilding), Spoleta (Benjamin Segal), Sciarrone (Henry Grant Kerswell) and the uncredited Marchesa Attavanti are well drawn, the orchestral performance is vibrant under Philip Thomas, the chorus (bumped by the children of W11 Opera) excellent. As compelling as the Opera North staging, bolder than both English National Opera's and the Royal Opera's, Holland Park's Tosca is a triumph.
Would that the same could be said of The Magic Flute. I hope Andrew Staples keeps in good health, for his elegantly sung Tamino is the most persuasive reason to spend three and a quarter hours with Simon Callow's muddled, joyless production. Designed by Tom Phillips, the most interesting aspect of Callow's Flute is the intricately painted floor. Mindful of this, perhaps, movement is kept to a minimum. Jane Glover's tweed-and-talcum conducting ensures several seconds of musty silence between the announcement of the three E-flat chords at the beginning of Act II and their belated arrival. There are no animals to charm, the slaves are green floor-mops, and the rest of the cast are variously dressed as 18th-century imperialists, health-spa customers and Hitchcock vamps. Dire.
Holland Park aside, the thriftiest way to maintain a serious opera habit is to go to school. Jo Davies's touching, intelligent production of The Cunning Little Vixen for the Royal College of Music made me wish again that the conservatoires would take their shows on tour. Exquisitely designed and lit by Chloe Lamford and Mark Doubleday, Davies's show balanced beautifully the story of Sharp-Ears's brief, passionate life and the Forester's conflicting feelings of tenderness and frustration. Outstanding performances from Sadhbh Dennedy (a slender, jodphured, vivacious Sharp-Ears) and James Oldfield (Forester) were complemented by a lively ensemble of animals and insects. But for persistent balance problems between pit and stage and some rough articulation from the strings, this was a delightful Vixen.
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