Never doubt the sheer power or the relevancy of a great work of opera. All you need for the first are extraordinary musicianship by a conductor, superb singers, and a stage director who can pull out performances of compelling dramatic truth. As for relevancy, the tag on the show’s poster read, “In love or war, what do you stand for?” For artists and other citizens worldwide, asking this critical question has grown into a rallying cry and gives art and art-making an urgency now that perhaps for some time had dimmed.
Tosca at the Washington National Opera has it all.
This production was last seen on the Potomac in 2011 when Placido Domingo was still (arguably) affiliated with the Washington National Opera and conducted the work. It was very strong then and even had the brilliant Alan Held as the most evil of villains Scarpia. Held returns in the role and is even more chilling as he incarnates the phenomenon of the reptilian-brained leader to whom society has succumbed. We see such men cropping up everywhere these days: unapologetic, reckless leaders whose lust for power seemingly goes unchecked and who displays only callousness toward those whom they ensnare and make suffer.
The opera by Giacomo Puccini is set in 19th century Rome during a period of political turbulence when Napoleon’s forces went head-to-head with the monarchists. Its themes of sharp political divides, the grab to stay in political power at whatever cost, and the assumed power of sexual conquest by men over women speak to our own times. But what struck me the most was the question put to almost every character in the opera in one form or another, “What do you stand for?” The challenge to the individual to stand up to tyranny is made by proxy in the opera to every one of us in the audience.
No time is wasted in “pretty” art. Puccini dispensed with a full overture, and Conductor Speranza Scappucci gets the most of the composer’s darkest of chords that thrust us into the center of the action.
The political prisoner, Angelotti (Michael Hewitt) has escaped but knows his chances to get free and clear are slim. He will become one of the victims but also (later) a hero, for he stands up to power and takes his own life rather than succumb to Scarpia’s army of evil. His friend the painter Mario Cavaradossi thinks that somehow as an artist he can avoid the conflict around him, but his own sense of loyalty and humanity push him into making choices at the greatest personal sacrifice. The Sacristan, played with detailed finesse by bass Wei Wu, makes little choices every day, vacillating between good-humored generosity and false piety, whose inability to stand up to authority costs others their lives. Even the children, a sweet-singing chorus of choirboys, who try to play in the sanctuary of the church until confronted by the powerful Scarpia and his henchmen, become more than just a chorus. War comes to children, and nowhere is there safety not even in a church such as Rome’s Sant’Andrea della Valle.
Tosca from Washington National Opera closes May 22, 2019. Details and tickets
The sound of bells tolling resounds throughout the score. They seem to mark the time not just of church “hours” but tolling for and marking the human cost of conflict.
The set, especially the vast Church in Act I, with its dark and light play of wood and metal fretwork, was utilized to great advantage by director Ethan McSweeney, whose schoolboy years were spent on the grounds of the Washington National Cathedral and gave him an insider’s knowledge of how to fill such vast “sacred” space with ordinary life and detail. His sense of dramatic flair came out not just in the moments of relationship but in the “stills” he created at the end of each act, shot through with lambent lighting by designer Gary Marder.
The palette for this production is gloriously rich. The scarlet of the choirboy robes in Act I return in the red of Tosca’s second act dress. This red is for passion, red for the line of jealousy to her heart, and red for blood that will be spilled as this “good pious woman” plunges a knife into Scarpia’s heart (and in this production goes on to gut the brute) at the moment he tries to thrust himself upon her.
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Keri Alkema is a beast as Tosca, and she returns triumphant to this stage, for she started her career as a member of the inaugural Domingo-Cafritz class. She seemed fearless opening night – as reckless as the “drama queen” her character Floria Tosca must be. One moment almost deliriously pious, the next wantonly hungry and wrapping limb to limb with lover Cavaradossi and practically drinking him up, then in jealous outrage accusing and pushing him away – and these are just her warm up moments! Later in the opera after such an emotional and vocal steeplechase, Tosca has to rein everything in and go inward in the opera’s rare moment of reflection. What do I stand for? Alkema starts center stage seated on the floor, beginning by spinning out a gossamer thread of sound in “Vissi D’Arte,” a gorgeous, heartbreaking aria most beautifully rendered.
Riccardo Massi makes his WNO debut in the role of Mario Cavaradossi and leapt onto the Kennedy Center Opera House stage Saturday night, grabbing instant celebrity. He had virtuosity mixed with sixteen bells of sex appeal – as much, I’ll warrant, as Russian dancer Nureyev did when he “leapt to freedom” in the west and onto the stage in 1961. This Italian tenor has it all – imposing form, dashing heroic looks, and that throbbing tenor sound that seems can only be born from that alchemy of grapes, terroir, and sun of Italy. In almost every aria, he seemed to make time stop by holding a note and just riding the sound fed by his heart-filled humanity.
Held is as commanding and scary a presence in the opera as he was in 2011. What I wrote then hit me the same way Saturday night. “Dressed all in black with silvery phosphorescent front trim like the underbelly of an alligator, and with just such a cold reptilian brain his Scarpia proved 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.”
Everything came together on this one. Boy Soprano Holden Brown, who has grown his instrument into artistry before our eyes, and takes full command center stage, conveying a crystalline moment of hope and innocence in a sea of darkness. In sharp contrast, David Cangelosi portrays, in the role of Spoletta, a warning: the almost non-human species one becomes when one does not stand up to power. Cangelosi insinuates like a snake and cowers behind Scarpia’s desk like a cur. He is that true dual threat in opera of singer and consummate physical performer. Michael Hewitt sings such life into Angelotti in his first and only act, that we continue to care deeply for him and cheer his heroic act of defiance, albeit offstage.
A special cheer must wrap up this review for Scappucci’s conducting. She created with the Washington National Orchestra such bold power, plus sharp and crisp attacks of sound on the one hand then delicate and beautiful melodic ribbons. It was a great pleasure to revisit this opera as if it were new under her deep and passionate understanding and delivery of Tosca.
Tosca by Giacomo Puccini. With libretto by Libretto Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica. Conducted by Speranza Scappucci. Stage Direction by Ethan McSweeny. Costume Designer Lena Rivkina. Lighting Designer Gary Marder. Chorus Master Steven Gathman. With Keri Alkema, Alan Held, Riccardo Massi, Michael Hewitt, Samson McCrady, David Cangelosi, Holden Browne, Samuel J. Weiser, and the Washington National Opera Orchestra, Chorus, and Children’s Chorus. Stage Managed by Lynn Krynicki. Produced by Washington National Opera. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.