Tosca, Nevill Holt Opera, NHO, June 2017

This year’s Tosca at Nevill Holt produced by Oliver Mears, an intelligent director who clearly cares about the music, augurs well for his new appointment as artistic director of the Royal Opera.

All images NHO/ Robert Workman

The setting, the troubled Italy of the 1970s when anti-establishment forces such as the Red Brigades were causing havoc, developed from an original production when Mears was appointed artistic director of the newly founded Northern Ireland Opera, where he framed Tosca amidst the Troubles. This update works brilliantly.

After Acts I and II in the usual places — large church and Scarpia’s offices — the seedy prison for Act III, where we see a prisoner executed before Cavaradossi enters, contrasted starkly with the passionate love duet, its resolution almost demanding both protagonists pass to another world. So much for the broad outline, but it is the small details that make this production so gripping.

Scarpia and Tosca, Act II

As the audience entered the auditorium for Act II, Scarpia is seated doing paperwork with a map of Rome behind showing mug shots and locations of the State’s enemies. He is just carrying out orders — such is the banality of evil — and his personal trap for Tosca is already set. This was a Scarpia for our times, brought to life by Paul Carey Jones with imposing singing and stage presence in Act I, and in his excellent Act II credo (Ha più forte) where he refers to caring nothing for such things as flowers, but loves diverse beauties and wines he can sample. Mears has taken both on board as Giselle Allen’s beautifully nuanced Tosca arrives with a bouquet of red roses from her theatre performance elsewhere, and he opens a bottle of wine for them to share.

Final duet

Her jealous pouting and furious emotion in Act I gave way to an extraordinary Vissi d’arte in Act II that developed with huge passion, and after she plunges the knife deeply into Scarpia’s heart and his body goes into convulsions, she places the red roses on his corpse — a nice touch. Carlos Fidalgo as her beloved Cavaradossi exhibited huge power, almost too much at the start for this 448-seat auditorium, but this is surely a tenor on his way to the top. Bass-baritone Tristan Hambleton as escaped prisoner Angelotti, and a nasty Sciarrone in Scarpia’s entourage, made a superb contribution to a fine team of singers under the excellent baton of Nicholas Chalmers.

Designs by Simon Lima Holdsworth worked very well, with superb lighting by DM Wood, and I loved the small coup de théâtre as the front curtain suddenly fell for the start of Act III to reveal the orchestra, hitherto behind the sets in the first two acts. This viscerally compelling performance lays bare what some consider Puccini’s greatest opera, making the journey from London to Nevill Holt well worth it, and I look forward to 2018 in their new theatre.

Performances continue on June 17, 18, 20 and 22 — for details click here.

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