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In a season of more successes than failures at Washington Opera—Rigoletto and I Puritani were not among the company’s finest moments—a great deal of credit must go, surprisingly, to the stage directors. “Surprisingly,” because opera has traditionally defied attempts to make it plausible or, God forbid, thought-provoking. But the silliest operas usually have some truth to impart, even if only on a subliminal level. It’s remarkable how many opera directors are able to look past surface artifice and diva tantrums and the expectations of reactionary subscribers to find that truth. Of course, it’s an uphill battle: You can’t expect a lot of nuance when the hapless director has to move a bunch of singing refrigerators around the stage or has to answer to audiences who get dyspeptic if every opera production doesn’t look like a weekend at Colonial friggin’ Williamsburg.

Washington Opera, which was once one of the most challenging opera companies in the country and has evolved into something more comfortably bourgeois, tends to steer clear of nontraditional thinking—and, occasionally, thinking altogether. But Maestro Domingo is increasingly hiring directors who know how to tell a story, how to find the emotional charge between characters, and how to suggest real-life motivations for all the fancy singing. Frank Corsaro, who directs WashOp’s new production of Puccini’s Tosca (currently on view at the KenCen Opera House), was, himself, once one of the country’s most challenging directors and has evolved into something more comfortably bourgeois. But the guy really knows his craft, and though he’s pretty much left behind the multimedia extravaganzas, the nudity, the radically reinterpretive ideas of his youth—the title of his autobiography, Maverick, was not an overstatement—he hasn’t abandoned his trust in the text as a wellspring for creativity. Corsaro helped turn young Placido from a promising young singer into a thinking singer-actor when he directed Domingo at the New York City Opera in the ’60s, and he seems to have had a similar effect on the cast of WashOp’s Tosca.

Tosca is not the easiest opera to ground in real life; it’s 100 percent ham-and-cheese melodrama, as popular for its lurid goings-on as for its rapturous melodies. The plot takes place circa 1800 in Rome and concerns a particularly pesky 24 hours in the life of opera diva Floria Tosca. First her church-painter boyfriend, Cavaradossi, is arrested for harboring a notorious enemy of the state, Angelotti. Then the chief of police, Scarpia, tries to arrange a sex-for-leniency deal with Tosca. When she politely declines, Scarpia orders his goons to get medieval on Cavaradossi. What’s a girl to do?

Well, for one thing, she can reveal Angelotti’s hiding place, promise Scarpia some booty in return for safe conduct out of the country for her and her guy, and then, as Scarpia undoes his Empire trousers, she can murder him with a bread knife conveniently found on his dinner table. All of which, of course, she does. But, being the sweetly clueless opera singer she is, Tosca fails to see the treachery in the “fake” execution Scarpia has arranged for Cavaradossi. So, after gigglingly watching her lover “fake” his death before a dawn firing squad, she realizes the bloody truth, swears to even the score with Scarpia before God, and leaps from the parapet. (As hard-core opera lovers will tell you, this is the moment when one unfortunate diva of the past ordered so many mattresses to break her fall that she bounced back into view after her leap.)

There are moments when Corsaro gives in to the cartoon potential of the piece. Making Scarpia’s chief henchman a hunchbacked, drooling, eye-patched freak show, forever twisting a piece of rope in strangulation fantasies, is surely gilding the verismo lily (not to mention generating laughs in the worst imaginable places). But elsewhere, the genius is in the directorial details: Angelotti’s aping the rituals of the monks he’s trying to blend with; Scarpia’s systematic uncowling of every monk he sees; Cavaradossi’s brazenly pouring himself a drink from Scarpia’s table and lounging on his divan; Tosca’s attempting, then rethinking, suicide before she kills Scarpia; Cavaradossi’s gesturing a final desperate goodbye to the uncomprehending Tosca, knowing full well he won’t survive the firing squad.

Scarpia’s death is a delirious sequence of horror-movie shock tactics that have a wonderfully ghoulish effect onstage. After all, one quick knife thrust and a 30-second death never made much sense. Scarpia’s got a lot of life in him, and Tosca’s got just as much rage. Corsaro lets the murder play out as a long, grisly, tabloid event—as it should—and at least one moment brought a collective gasp from the audience on opening night.

But for all its soap-opera allure, Tosca stands or falls on the strength of its singers. The score calls for all-beef voices capable of melting lyricism and informed by sound acting instincts, and WashOp has fielded an international cast that covers those bases well. Reigning Russian diva Galina Gorchakova (who will be replaced by Susan Patterson on March 10, 14, 16, and 18) has a voice big enough to bring down enemy aircraft, but, like Birgit Nilsson’s equally forceful soprano, it adapts well to the contours of the Italian repertoire. There were moments when the focus slipped, and blowzy, cavernous high notes (which had little going for them but volume) came unleashed. Generally, though, she sang with beauty and firm interpretive control.

Gorchakova can be an on-again, off-again actress. Her Tatyana, in the Met’s scandalously underappreciated, Robert Carsen-directed Eugene Onegin, was a little too chilly and reticent, whereas her Lisa, in that company’s even better The Queen of Spades, was a passionately involving creature. What she and Corsaro have made of Tosca is fascinating. Most Toscas lose the character’s grande-dame affectations the minute Cavaradossi’s screams start issuing from the torture chamber: Tosca the Real Woman vs. Tosca the Frivolous Artiste. Here, Tosca’s Act 1 schtick—giggly flirtation, widdle-girl petulance, the luxuriant poses of someone onstage even in her everyday life—carries well into Act 2. Floating about the stage as if on casters and refusing (literally and figuratively) to face the horrors taking place in the next room, Gorchakova’s Tosca is a creature whose composure depends on a purposeful avoidance of reality. It’s a risky acting choice that threatens to disengage the audience. But her breaking point, late in Act 2, becomes all the more effective, and she does the down-to-earth thing very nicely in Act 3.

Marcus Haddock’s Cavaradossi is wonderfully sung; his phrasing is warmly Italianate, and his big, healthy voice opens out thrillingly on high notes. As an actor, he’s less of a deer in the headlights than he was in WashOp’s La Rondine, but the guy is still no Barrymore. Still, he’s pleasant enough onstage, and, though your eyes keep wandering away from him in the first act, he gets better as the evening proceeds, taking on a third dimension by opera’s end.

Sergei Leiferkus has made a substantial career playing villains, his nasal, sibilant-heavy baritone possessing a sort of reptilian elegance. He’s another singer who’s been all over the map in terms of acting quality. Recent Met appearances have found him more at home as the unctuous Rangoni in Boris Godunov than as Verdi’s Iago, a role in which he came off like some corporate sales rep who had just waked up on an opera stage and had to spend most of Otello trying to figure out what the hell he was doing there. This Scarpia is the most effective portrayal I’ve seen him give onstage. His voice will never be that of a natural Puccini baritone, but the menace and creepy charm he brings to the part more than compensate for a less-than-inviting sound.

Unfortunately, conductor Eugene Kohn was only scheduled for the first two performances (the remaining eight go to company music director Heinz Fricke, whose competence in the Italian repertoire has yet to match his incandescence in Richard Strauss). Kohn gave a thoughtful, deliberately paced reading that indulged the composer’s lyrical gifts and built beautifully to some fiery climaxes, brass blaring away as they’ve rarely been given license to at the Opera House.

A word about the designs: Much is made in the company’s PR packets about this production’s serving as a centennial celebration of Tosca’s Roman premiere in January 1900. But surely it’s a mistake to start each act with a projected slide of the sets for that first production. To a one, they possess a scope, a sense of airy space—no doubt achieved through quainter, more technologically limited means than we have access to today—that is not matched by the newly designed sets. Some of designer Alexander Belaiev’s ideas work well, like replacing the portrait of a voluptuous, blond Madonna—which sends Tosca into such a jealous snit—with a towering sculpture that looms over the couple. Other ideas probably looked better on paper than they do onstage: The crazy amalgam of proto-Fascist architecture, cutaways of scaffold machinery (complete with hanging dummies), and bits of quaint period furniture in the last act simply look cluttered. Overall, though, there are some handsome visuals. They form a suitable backdrop to a production that gets the balance of drama and music just about right. CP