BWW Reviews: Santa Fe Opera Opens Season with Startling Production of TOSCA

Related: Tosca, Santa Fe Opera


In the best tradition of grand opera, TOSCA has it all; love, lust, evil, betrayal, hate, suicide, murder, even an execution. Add to all that, Giacomo Puccini’s stirring music, highlighted by a couple of particularly memorable arias (famously performed by operatic legends, Maria Callas and Luciano Pavarotti) and you have the makings of an evening of fine, traditional artistry.
But there was nothing traditional about the new production of TOSCA that marked the opening of the Santa Fe Opera’s 2012 season on June 29th. This classic melodrama, one of the best known works in the operatic repertoire, has been completely re-invented by director, Stephen Barlow, resulting in a production that is startlingly unfamiliar to any seasoned opera lover.
The story is set in Rome in the year 1800, against a background of the Napoleonic wars being waged at the time. The artist, Cavaradossi, Tosca’s lover, and Angelotti, the revolutionary leader, are in revolt against Rome’s repressive regime and favor Napoleon. When Cavaradossi is captured by the evil Baron Scarpia, the city’s chief of police, Tosca, an opera singer, intervenes to try and save his life. The resulting tsunami of tragedies unfolds in the space of just 24 hours.
All the locations in which the story takes place, during the opera’s three acts, are real, not make-believe. The Church of San Andros della Valle, which is the opening scene, really does exist. But instead of being drawn inside an old, historic, Roman church, the audience is faced with an enormous, bronze dome, which completely dominates the stage. This 90° offset is repeated with the picture that Cavaradossi is painting. Instead of being set on an easel, it serves as the floor, upon which all the characters casually walk. The final impression is almost cartoon-like and, without a realistic environment to create the appropriate mood, there is an even greater credibility gap between the audience and the events taking place on the stage.
The way those events are depicted, also departs from the traditional. When Tosca, outraged by Scarpia’s offer to trade a night with him for her lover’s life, stabs him with a knife, he expires as he staggers through the doorway to his torture chamber, leaving only his feet visible to the audience. The original score then creates a space for Tosca to silently lay out the body, set a couple of lighted candles beside it and place a crucifix on his chest. Without a body, none of that is possible, leaving Tosca to fill the time by moving, somewhat aimlessly, around the set, contributing nothing to the fabric of the story.
The music and the singing were competent, but lacking in passion and intensity. South African soprano, Amanda Echalez, making her American debut, in the part of Tosca, failed to convey the emotional depth so essential for this role. And her final, dramatic act of hurling herself to her death from the castle ramparts was about as dramatic as a leap into a swimming pool.
American tenor, Brian Jagde, bravely took over the part of Cavaradossi, just a week before opening night. He is to be commended for doing a fine, if not remarkable job. Baron Scarpia, played by American bass, Raymond Aceto, is tyrannical and commanding, but does not come across as the evil villain he so famously is. The passionate, emotional interactions between the characters, fall short of the fire and intensity, which is such an essential part of this opera.
Frédéric Chaslin, now in his second season as the company’s chief conductor, led the orchestra in a musical interpretation that was well coordinated, but tepid, lacking the passion and fiery, emotional intensity that TOSCA, one of the most familiar and loved of all operas, is so famous for. This is clearly not a production for those expecting something reminiscent of the New York Met or the Royal Opera House in London. But for anyone open to a completely different kind of TOSCA and for those with no preconceived notions of how it should be, this is an experience not to be missed. It’s certainly unique. 

The season runs through August 25. Details at www.santafeopera.org.
Photo courtesy of Ken Howard/

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Anya Sebastian Anya Sebastian is a Santa Fe-based freelance writer, award-winning broadcaster and a Brit who began her career as a BBC reporter in London. A graduate of Oxford University, her work--with a special focus on the arts--has appeared in publications on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as online. An avid theater enthusiast, she has appeared on stage in a number of productions and has also worked with major film and TV projects.

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