Opening night of the Washington National Opera celebrated both a new leader at the helm and a new partnership with The Kennedy Center. Like a marriage ceremony, there is now a commitment on both sides to make this relationship work and contribute to the thriving of both parties. Showing up Saturday night were Washington’s well-heeled to bless the union at an affair that proved to be both classy and artfully produced.
The choice of Tosca to mark this event suggested that the big classics would remain the engine that drives the company and sealed WNO’s promise to give Washington’s opera faithful what they want.
Since 1900, this opera has drawn people with its sensational plot featuring political corruption, sex and violence. Set in 19th century Rome during a period of political turbulence when Napoleon’s forces had invaded the city, its themes resonate resoundingly in our own capital. But composer Puccini was too deft to belabor political polemics. He knew what opera delivers best and focused on the fragility of people’s identities and relationships in harsh times.
Events and emotions erupt quickly in this volatile world. Nothing can be counted on, not human safety or loyalties. Romantic trysts and friendships must be snatched in fleeting moments, which gives the whole first act a kind of breathless, even cinematic quality.
Puccini takes no time with an overture. After a few sharp chords, the newly escaped political prisoner Angelotti runs on and collapses, hiding inside a church. This is where the painter Mario Cavaradossi has been working on a commission to paint a Magdalen, whose likeness he has drawn from a beautiful countess who happens to be Angelotti’s sister.
Naturally, when Cavaradossi’s lover, Floria Tosca, arrives, the raven-haired singer-actress is none too happy about the blue eyed, blonde haired beauty she discovers in the painting. She flies into a jealous rage only moments later to avow her love and seek his reassurance which whips Mario up to match her vocal passion. When she leaves, Angelotti, who has been ducking in and out of a chapel, has just enough time to reconnect with his friend Mario and to receive his generous offer of assistance when they hear cannons and leave quickly. Even church ritual, expressed in a beautiful choric “Te Deum”, is interrupted with the entrance of Scarpia, the chief of Secret Police, one of the repertoire’s great villains.
Alan Held has a commanding presence and, on the moment of arrival, he filled the stage with evil menace. Dressed all in black with silvery phosphorescent front trim, like the underbelly of an alligator, his Scarpia projected a cool reptilian brain just as dangerous. His dark powerful voice cut through the orchestra as his powerful dramatic drive cut through anything or anyone that stood in the way of what he wanted. Clearly, there is no religious sanctuary safe from his machinations. When Tosca returns, Scarpia seizes upon the idea to ensnare both Angelotti and the singer. By goading her into jealous fury again regarding Mario’s fidelity, he reveals that he is less interested in her voluptuous beauty than watching her thrash emotionally before he devours her.
Throughout, the opera is driven by sharp contrasts between good and evil, personal love and political power, light and dark, art and life’s messiness, even tragedy. Director David Kneuss and set designer Ulissi Santicchi accentuated these dualities in several ways. At the end of Act I, instead of the usual choric procession for the Te Deum, the vast stage is divided into two levels, above a crowded church scene of light, pomp and ceremony, and below the dark, lonely hell created by secular power run rampant.
In Act II, Tosca in a stunning red dress, lights up the Farnese Palace of Chief Scarpia with its chilly marble walls and enormously tall ceilings. It’s as if Scarpia must have that fiery light only to threaten to extinguish it through his own darkness.
At the center of the story is the dazzling and mercurial Floria Tosca. Singing the role, American soprano Patricia Racette displayed all the emotional and vocal intensity Tosca demands. Last year, she stepped into the role for the first time at the Metropolitan Opera. She comes to this production with a deep understanding of what she wants to say with this character. Racette was especially powerful in Act II as she dove headlong into the agony of this character, now scorning Scarpia’s advances, now responding to the screams of her lover being tortured offstage, now breaking her vow of silence and spilling the beans about Angelotti’s whereabouts, now steeling her courage to assassinate the brutal Scarpia. In the middle of all this, the soprano must sing “Visi d’arte,” arguably the most beautiful and heart wrenching of arias. She delivered the goods, but it was her masterful acting that made this a stand out Tosca.
The evening was conducted by Plácido Domingo, the former Artistic Director of WNO and someone who has distinguished himself in the role of Mario Cavaradossi in several productions. His musicality is undisputed and his presence added an extra layer of tension to the drama. I couldn’t help thinking that Frank Porretta, singing the role of Cavaradossi, was not only doing the tenor version of what I think of as high-wire walking thirty feet in the air without a net but knowing that below him was a big tiger just waiting. What must it be like when you look out, as an opera singer inevitably must, for certain cues from your conductor, and stare into the eyes of a man who’s got this role in his bones?
Given this, Porretta handled the role well, particularly in the first act. On opening night by Act III, it seemed that perhaps he’d oversung, or it may have been the tiger in the pit.
The quibbles I have are in the details, something that seems the challenge of mounting big opera with “so many moveable parts” and so little time to work the moments out with everyone. One of these moments came in the relationship between Cavaradossi and Angelotti. Kenneth Kellogg is a young singer with a nice voice but still developing physical confidence, but what I really wanted from them both is the verismo in the set up of a bond of loyal friendship so strong that they are both willing to be tortured or killed rather than give up the other. Another hole for me was the beginning of Act III which has some lush and lengthy instrumental music but which was filled with little other than two little soldiers marching back and forth high on the walls of Castel Sant’Angelo.
Nonetheless, this was a Tosca to die for. And they did.
If opera is an unknown world or you think you know what you like and you don’t like opera, think again and give Tosca a chance. In this digital age, our lives have been defined by high tech and small screens. There’s no better restorative to the shrinking of our hearts than witnessing the coming together of sounds, vision and human passion of a great opera. For not any more than you’d pay to see a Broadway revival you get the real thing with voices that don’t have to be miked. These voices will fill your soul with something very special indeed. And the story of Tosca reminds us of the size that life can be if we dare feel.
Tosca is onstage thru Sept 24, 1011 at the Opera House of The Kennedy Center, 2700 F Street NW, Washington, DC.
Details and tickets
By Giacomo Puccini
With libretto by Libretto Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica
Conducted by Plácido Domingo
Stage Direction by David Kneuss
Produced by Washington National Opera
Reviewed by Susan Galbraith
Running Time: 2:40 with two intermissions
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Anne Midgette . Washington Post
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