Tosca at The Grange Festival


Reuniting many of the team who captured the imagination of Grange Festival audiences in 2019 with a spellbinding production of Verdi’s Falstaff, acclaimed theatre director Christopher Luscombe and designer Simon Higlett have teamed up for a new staging of Puccini’s Tosca which, based on Sardou’s 19th century hit play La Tosca, sizzles with all the emotional tension we demand from this three act masterpiece set in Rome, the city in which the opera was first performed in 1900. It has remained a cornerstone of the repertoire ever since, but that usually means opera lovers have their own ideas about how it should be staged.

Fortunately, Luscombe is sensitive to this and has deftly updated the action to the mid 20th century, which works effortlessly thanks to Higlett’s convincingly detailed interiors, from the inside of the Church of Sant’Andrea della Valle in Act I, Scarpia’s Bond-villain-esque chambers at the Palazzo Farnese in Act II, and a sufficiently dark and gloomy cell with foreboding ramparts for the suspenseful finale. The Grange Festival has come a long way since their inaugural programme in 2017 when they simply didn’t have the budget for such elaborate set designs and it’s thrilling to see what they have achieved with more financial scope and a loyal and talented team behind them.

Nowadays, Grange Festival productions (heavily sponsored by generous patrons) are every inch as opulent as those of city opera house counterparts, and coupled with the fact that they are staged in the purpose-built, RIBA award-winning theatre in the historic Grade I-listed mansion, this is what differentiates the Festival from others that sprung up on the heels of Glyndebourne. The Grange Festival, the more daring and creative younger sibling who isn’t too aloof to fête the worlds of dance and jazz, entices both arts-loving patrons and the starriest performers on the international opera circuit. Far more of an experience than any metropolitan opera house, audience members have the chance to enjoy the spectacular vista of the Hampshire countryside ahead of the performance and during the 90 minute dining interval, making it hard to imagine a more intoxicating setting in which to enjoy some of the most sublime music ever composed.

Sung in the original Italian with Francesco Cilluffo conducting the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra with an emphatic tone of angst from the outset, the opening scene in which Cesare Angelotti (Dan D’Souza in his Festival debut), an escaped political prisoner takes cover in the aforementioned church and finds his friend Cavaradossi the painter (Uruguayan tenor Andrés Presno) at work on a portrait of Our Lady; an opening which possesses an almost Hitchcockian level of suspense when Cavaradossi promises to help conceal his friend at great personal risk. Nor do we have long to wait until we meet Floria Tosca, a singer who is besotted by Cavaradossi and jealous that he is painting a blonde, blue-eyed rival and not herself as the Virgin Mary.

Presno, a former Jette Parker Young Artist who made his Festival debut in the 2022 production of Macbeth, is not only a fine Cavaradossi but the perfect partner to the sumptuous tones of Italian soprano Francesca Tiburzi who will stop at nothing to protect the man she loves from the corrupt Baron Scarpia, sung by Romanian-American baritone Andrew Manea whose sonorous tones bring an alluring force to the character we all love to hate and culminate in appreciative boos come the curtain calls. Obsessed with catching the escaped convict Angelotti and convinced that Cavaradossi and in turn Tosca know of his whereabouts, the plot quickly morphs into Indecent Proposal by Act II, with Scarpia standing in for Richard Gere when he attempts to persuade Tosca to trade her body for the life of Cavaradossi whom his henchman are now torturing.

A surprisingly modern tale of female empowerment, or so Luscombe is cleverly pointing out, Tosca is enriched with some of the most recognisable arias in the repertoire, a popularity which has proved a double-edged sword for the many stars who have tackled the leading roles previously. Not so for Presno with ‘E lucevan le stelle’ or Tiburzi who breathes new life into ‘Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore’ in Act II. It goes without saying that the casting of the title role of Tosca was imperative to the success of this production and Tiburzi, in reprising the role for which she has received international acclaim, is now wowing Grange Festival audiences with her debut UK performance. Uniting all the femme fatale qualities and womanliness Puccini intended with his original ‘Diva’, Tiburzi was born to sing Tosca and The Grange Festival’s introduction to her in this role is undoubtedly one of the highlights of the 2024 programme of opera, dance and jazz; reinforcing the festival’s reputation for delighting audiences with the best homegrown and international talent.

Tosca is one of three brand new Grange Festival productions this year, sitting proudly alongside Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea and Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress – works which span 300 years and sum up the Festival’s breadth and wide appeal under Artistic Director Michael Chance. Nominated for ‘Festival of the Year’ at the International Opera Awards 2023, it’s great to see that new audiences continue to discover the magic of this unique celebration of the arts – a firm fixture of my summer calendar. I only wish it was year-round.

Tosca at The Grange Festival 2014 on selected dates until 5th July 2024. For more information and tickets please visit the website.

Production images by Craig Fuller.