Tosca is the Shawshank Redemption of opera. It’s something you can see five or six times without even trying; it’s always on somewhere. Despite its over-programming and syrupy sentimentality, or rather because of it, it’s a lot of people’s favorite opera. The more unpleasant aspects of its story—the torture, the sexual blackmail—may have shocked some in Puccini’s day, but now they’re normal opera plot points, and are seen as evidence of the composer’s envelope-pushing vision. In truth, it’s a tawdry melodrama with some pretty music, a poorly established romance shoehorned into a poorly developed political plot punctuated by an abrupt, tragic finale.
It’s also a great scaffold for singers, directors, and conductors to show off their stuff. Washington National Opera’s current production of Tosca has all three. This won’t be your last chance to see the namesake diva stab her way to that requisite doomed ending, but it’s one of the better ones. This is thanks to theatrical innovations by director Ethan McSweeny, serious acting chops by the cast, and a reserved interpretation by conductor Speranza Scappucci. Puccini may have been a dramatic hack, but he was a musical savant, recalling key moments with repeated motifs and passing melodies around different sections. Scappucci brings out the best of his score, letting the singers shine without fighting the orchestra. Act III’s cello quartet is especially well played.
McSweeny isn’t an opera guy. He’s a theater guy—Shakespeare, in particular—whose continued work with WNO highlights the theater-ization of opera in the U.S. as a whole and D.C. in particular under WNO artistic director Francesca Zambello. This general trend means greater emphasis on staging and acting, something opera singers, who traditionally could get away with standing in one place and belting out arias, are not always comfortable doing.
Thankfully, this Tosca cast is enthusiastic about not standing around. The production I saw was with the B cast, which is mostly the same as the A cast except for the two leads, Tosca and her lover, Cavaradossi. I can’t vouch for the singers playing them for most of the run, Keri Alkema or Riccardo Massi, but at least for the Sunday performances (the next one falls on May 19), this Tosca boasts a dynamite titular heroine, Latonia Moore, making her WNO debut. The American soprano emotes with her powerful voice and whole body, arms outstretched in a way as to recall the cruciform cathedral setting of Act One and foreshadow her end in the final act.
Tosca’s title role calls for some meta self-reflection: The character is a stereotypical opera diva, and not in the positive sense of the word. Clingy, jealous of her painter boyfriend’s models, and kind of a ditz, she comes into her own and takes a sudden, violent turn in the face of threatened rape by the villainous cop Scarpia. It’s an opera made for sopranos and the most wide ranging soprano role Puccini ever wrote, which also entails dramatic—one might say unbelievably rushed—character development. Moore’s anguish with the impossible situation she is in, captured in her Act II aria “Vissi d’arte,” is visceral, beautiful, and deeply moving.
Moore’s stamina isn’t matched by that of her partner, tenor Robert Watson playing Cavaradossi, whose voice begins to crack towards the end. His character is far less notable, going from love interest to unseen plot device who mostly serves as a vehicle for Tosca’s self-actualization. The more interesting of the male roles is Scarpia, the police chief played by baritone Alan Held in both casts. The author of both protagonists’ torment, physical and psychological, isn’t even after either of them, but a character so minor he dies offstage, the anti-royalist (and, oddly for an Italian opera, pro-French) freedom fighter Angelotti. Held, who was a memorable Wotan in Zambello’s Ring Cycle, has a surprisingly low key approach to what is normally the quintessential over-the-top opera villain: He rarely lets loose the full force of his baritone. This comes across as underpowered at first, but as the story progresses, it reveals him to be more creepy than cartoonish, a sexual sadist who revels in the degree to which he repulses the object of his, er, affections.
It’s gross, but sexual violence is at the heart of Tosca. Scarpia’s memorable Act I introduction, the sacrilegious “Te Deum” in which he announces before a church audience his rapey designs on the diva (“Tosca, you make me forget God!”) is the scene of one of McSweeny’s most novel theatrical approaches to the opera. In the middle of the aria, the entire painted backdrop lifts and rotates to shift the audience’s point of view to the top of the cross within the cathedral setting, a change in perspective carrying a religious significance probably lost on most of the audience (including me—thanks to theater critic and medieval architecture expert Rebecca J. Ritzel for this observation). This kind of thing doesn’t make or break the opera, but helps make it stand out more than most. WNO last did Tosca in 2011, and I can barely remember it except for an ill-advised belly flop at the end; Moore’s exit is far more graceful. But given the number of times you’re likely to see Tosca, any memorable bit helps.
To May 25 at 2700 F St. NW. In Italian with English surtitles. $45–$280. (202) 467-4600. kennedy-center.org.