Tosca: Royal Opera, 2nd March 2013

E-mail Print PDF

In this of Jonathan Kent’s 2006 production of Tosca at the Royal Opera House, revived by Andrew Sinclair, we are transported back to Roma in 1800. Paul Brown’s simple designs are beautifully evocative of the Eternal City and the costumes place us securely in the period of the Napoleonic Wars when Italy, rather like today, had a change of government almost once a year. Each new regime heralds further disillusionment with government, fails to address the huge divide between aristocracy and peasantry and seemingly has little impact on the normal lives of ordinary mortals.

But the three protagonists of Tosca are not your average inhabitant of Rome in 1800. Cavaradossi is the son of an aristocrat in exile and was born in Paris, where the established order has already been overturned. Tosca is the equivalent of a film star today. Her unusual role in society makes her powerful and yet vulnerable, because of her gender. Scarpia adopts the unenviable role of Lord High Executioner and is the one protagonist clinging on to the old world order.  The common ground between the three is that they are all guilty of hubris.

For me and many others Maria Callas was the quintessential Tosca. Her portrayal in the 1964 Zeffirelli production at the Royal Opera House was of a powerful, passionate and unpredictable iconic figure destined to leave a trail of death in her wake. George Hall writes, “Part of Maria Callas’ insight into the role of Tosca consisted in a recognition that her character was – however perversely – attracted to her tormentor, as personified by Tito Gobbi, who maintained a degree of aristocratic charm as essential to his portrayal of Scarpia.”  If you subscribe to that scenario as I do, it means we are watching a clash of two Titans, making both Angelotti and Cavaradossi mere collateral damage.

Michael Volle as Scarpia did indeed give a Titanic performance. He artfully tempered Scarpia’s arrogance and lust for control with a seductive charm which should have been enough to bring any woman to her knees.  Despite the appeal of passion with Scarpia, Tosca was not willing to subsume her own ego to his.  I remember Volle’s performance as Dr Schön in the ROH 2009 Lulu production in which he proved himself a consummate physical and vocal actor. They say the Devil gets all the best tunes; in Tosca Scarpia’s vocal lines are mainly through-composed rather than in the form of arias.  Volle supported these seemingly endless vocal expositions, giving one of the best examples of line and length singing I have heard in some time, enabling him to maintain energy and tension to the end of every phrase. His voice has a resonance which was perfect for this large house, especially in the extraordinary Te Deum where his voice floats above both orchestra and chorus, exposing his evil scheme in open defiance of his faith. His diction is excellent so I heard every word.

Apart from what I am sure is a cheeky reference to Cavalleria rusticana (by Puccini’s former flatmate) in the opening scene and a couple of incidences of a familiar cadence from Turandot, a lot of Tosca seems to me to preview the music of Il tabarro and even Suor Angelica, two very human tragedies. The orchestra, conducted on this occasion by Maurizio Benini, threw itself heart and soul into the kaleidoscope of instrumental colours which Puccini employs. However there were a few noticeable disagreements in ensemble which I have to attribute to the conductor and there were times where he was not the most sensitive accompanist of either his Tosca or his Cavaradossi.

And now Amanda Echalaz, who famously stepped into the role of Tosca at short notice to replace Angela Gheorghiu in 2009 and has since reprised the role around the world: I was hoping for someone who could persuade me that Maria Callas’ Tosca can be surpassed.  Echalaz has mastered the role vocally. “Vissi d’arte” – as it had to be – was beautifully and sensitively sung, a little oasis of tenderness in the middle of the torment and violence of Act II. I love the fact she can give us a variety of tone colours and ease off the gas pedal to float some very beautiful high notes. However, she is not assertive enough, not the strong independent woman I want Tosca to be and I don’t think the costume in Act I suited her at all.  Au naturel Echalaz has an arresting beauty, but in this costume she looked too much like the very thing Tosca is not. She didn’t convey the charisma and startling beauty needed to convince me that Cavaradossi was madly in love with her. The glittering concert dress of Acts II and III was a definite improvement, but that extravagant train seemed to hamper her movement at every turn in Act II. She seemed unable to match Volle’s acting, his vocal power or his sheer force of personality. In Act III once Volle is out of the picture, she finally comes into her own; her death scene was beautifully handled, making full use of that train.

She may have been outclassed by her scenes with Volle, but to her credit, Echalaz tackled the difficult proposition of singing her duets with her Cavaradossi with great professionalism, despite what I perceived as a lack of support from her musical director.  When Massimo Giordano made his first entrance I thought how nice it was to see a young tenor who looks the part; then he opened his mouth. My first reaction was that the last time I heard this kind of singing was in a small restaurant on the seafront in Naples. (Dear reader, I have been known to pay buskers in Italy to go away.) I couldn’t believe I was hearing such lavish use of portamento, sometimes a scoop from a third below the note, a bit like a pole-vaulter taking a long run up. On reflection this may well have been the style of singing popular in Italy in 1900, if all those Neapolitan songs we love to hate are anything to go by. So just maybe Giordano is the only authentic Puccini singer we have today. Poor Amanda Echalaz - how on earth do you sing a duet with someone when you’ve no idea how long it is going to take them to climb up to the top note, never mind co-ordinate coming back down at the end of the phrase?

Hubert Francis was spot on as Spoletta, the Lewis to Volle’s Morse. Jeremy White seemed to relish the character role of the Sacristan and two Jette Parker alumni took on the roles of Sciarrone (Jihoon Kim) and Angelotti (Michel de Souza.)


Miranda Jackson

Opera Britannia

Photographs © Tristram Kenton


Recent Reviews

Puccini: Tosca

Renée Fleming, our hostess with the mostest at the Metropolitan Opera’s latest cinema relay of Tosca a few weeks ago, urged us – as ever – to experience opera first-hand and to ‘come visit the Met’ or to support your local opera company. The Opera Britannia excursions budget wouldn’t get you as far as York, let alone New York, so my local company it was and performing the same opera too. Tosca is very much the safe, financial bolster to Welsh National Opera’s Tudor trilogy in its autumn season – a crowd-pleaser of a production excavated from 1992, but which seemed even older.


Humperdinck: Hänsel und Gretel

And so to Milton Keynes, pursued by a perishing wind fit to crack the famous concrete cows. The Milton Keynes Theatre, as a venue, is one of the jewels in the ATG crown, big enough to house almost any touring product, with spacious and well-designed auditorium and foyers. Unfortunately it is marooned in one of those soulless retail areas surrounded by a sea of mediocre chain outlets which offer the same tat or that which passes for food in a thousand other identical areas the world over. Whether it was position or the icy blasts which accounted for the poorly populated house is hard to say.


Mozart: The Magic Flute

For all the risk-taking in the operatic world, productions which are guaranteed bums-on-seats bankers are like Nibelung gold. To scrap not one but two such productions is a brave move for English National Opera this season. We shall see what Christopher Alden inflicts on Rigoletto in the spring, replacing Jonathan Miller’s famous Little Italy staging. Meanwhile, Nicholas Hytner’s much loved production of The Magic Flute has finally been laid to rest (after a few ‘absolutely your last chance to see’ revivals), replaced with this new one by Simon McBurney and Complicite.


Shostakovich: The Nose

Described at the time as “an anarchist’s hand grenade,” The Nosewas not well received and soon disappeared from view, although Malko, one of Shostakovich’s teachers at the Conservatoire, recognised the quality of the score. It was composed in 1927-28 and given a concert performance, against Shostakovich’s better judgment, in 1929: “The Nose loses all meaning if it is seen just as a musical composition. For the music springs only from the action...It is clear to me that a concert performance of The Nose will destroy it."



ENO goes widescreen

After resisting the prevailing tide for opera houses beaming their wares to a worldwide cinema audience, English National Opera has seen the light. From 2014, selected productions will be screened at 300 cinemas around the UK and beyond, starting with its revival of David Alden’s production of Peter Grimes, starring Stuart Skelton. A new production, by Terry Gilliam, of Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini will also be relayed. Gilliam’s earlier Berlioz adventure, The Damnation of Faust, was broadcast on television.



Poetry Corner

Biography: Mary Robertson is an Emeritus Professor in Neuropsychiatry at University College London and visiting Professor at St George’s Hospital Medical School, London. Aside from being an opera devotee, Mary is a published poet and photographer.

(New poems added: 04/08/2010)

more >>



News updates

Subscribe to Opera Britannia to receive all the latest news and latest reviews

Signup >>

Around the Houses

Dmitri Platanias will sing the title role when the Royal Opera revives its new production of Nabucco. Mariusz Kwiecien will be joined by Saimir Pirgu in Steffen Aarfing's production of Szymanowski's King Roger at Covent Garden in 2015. The Royal Opera will stage Andrea Chenier in 2014/15 with Jonas Kaufmann, Eva-Maria Westbroek and Željko Lucic.

Anna Netrebko is due to sing the role of Lady Macbeth for a single performance at the Bavarian State Opera in June 2014.

Maria Agresta will sing Lucrezia in Verdi's I due Foscari in the 2014-15 season at Covent Garden. Placido Domingo does the Doge double, adding the baritone role of Francesca Foscari to his Simon Boccanegra.

Corinne Winters, fresh from her triumph as Violetta in ENO's production of La traviata, is to return to the Coliseum next season as Teresa in Berlioz's Benvenuto CelliniMichael Spyres sings the title role in a production which sees the return ofTerry Gilliam to the director's seat, after his Damnation of Faust debut.

. Read More>>

"Around the Houses" concentrates on providing the latest news on future plans for opera companies around the globe, artists schedules, cancellations and interesting snippets of information. We will try and avoid unsubstantiated gossip wherever possible, but all of our sources will remain completely confidential.  If you would like to advise us about potential news for this section, then please feel free to email us at

Coming Soon

Reviews to be published shortly:



CD Reviews

Vivaldi: Catone in Utica (Naive)

Although he claimed to have composed around ninety operas, there cannot be many left in the archives of the Biblioteca Nazionale in Turin for Naïve to record in its ongoing Vivaldi Edition if you discount pasticcios, reworkings and incomplete works. Their latest offering, the fourteenth opera in the series, falls into the latter category, for only Acts II and III of Catone in Utica have survived. The opera was written to celebrate the culmination of his third and final season at Verona’s Teatro dell’Accademia Filarmonica – a profitable success for the composer. Premiered in 1737, it is unknown whether Act I was even written by Vivaldi himself, or whether music by other composers was employed.

Read more>>

Recital Reviews

Anne Sofie von Otter: Alumni Series

Milton Court, 23rd November 2013

When this was first drawn to my attention, such is my regard for the Swedish mezzo that I immediately withdrew from reviewing Albert Herring some two hundred yards down the road in the Barbican, and enthusiastically opted for what I thought was an evening of French chansons and mélodies. What a prospect! Anne Sofie von Otter let loose on Chausson and Debussy, Fauré and Poulenc, perhaps some Gounod and Bizet, with maybe a little Délibes and/or Satie by way of let-your-hair-down encore material. All with her long-term musical accompanist Bengt Forsberg summoning up the necessary style. Rapture guaranteed, for which I arrived fully prepared.

Read more>>

DVD Reviews

Donizetti: Lucrezia Borgia (EuroArts)

Scholars now doubt on Lucrezia Borgia’s credentials as mass poisoner, but Donizetti’s operatic treatment on her historical character would have us believe she spiked drinks with cantarella and laced dishes with deadly nightshade like nobody’s business. Lucrezia, here on her fourth marriage (in reality, her third) to Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, is reunited with Gennaro, her long-lost son. Unfortunately, she withholds this vital information from him and from her husband, who suspects her of conducting an affair. It’s as free an interpretation as the lusty television series The Borgias, which never got as far as this in Lucrezia’s marital history, but none the worse for that.

Read more>>

Copyright 09 Opera Britannia
facebook twitter