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It’s hard to believe, given all its pageantry and extravagance, that opera was once a genuinely popular art form that catered to the lowest common denominator. But there are a few operas that remind you of the genre’s onetime mass appeal. Tosca is one of them.
Opera snobs look down their noses at Puccini for his penchant for dumbed down melodrama, but this is both his greatest flaw and strength. Among his many well-loved, overperformed works, Tosca best puts his hack talents on display. It’s a trite story, with one-dimensional stock characters and the dramatic arc of a Jerry Bruckheimer movie, that tugs at your basest emotions. There’s a lot of weeping. And torture. And yet the final product is really quite enjoyable. So too is the Washington National Opera’s treatment of it, this month at the Kennedy Center.
The Washington National Opera doesn’t have any qualms with going lowbrow, certainly not for its season opener, and certainly not this season. D.C.’s top opera company went through two near catastrophes in the past year: first, losing Plácido Domingo, WNO’s longtime and often absentee director, to the Los Angeles Opera; then, being bailed out and absorbed by the Kennedy Center after almost going bankrupt. WNO doesn’t always open seasons with chestnuts—-last season’s opener, Un Ballo in Maschera, was not a fan favorite. So it’s fortuitous that this season’s program (set years before either Domingo’s departure or the company’s financial troubles were anticipated) opens with a safe bet, as if reassuring audiences and donors that the company may be going through an existential crisis, but they’re not doing anything crazy.
Tosca takes place in Rome, during Napoleon’s invasion of Italy in 1800. Curiously, the Italian composer (basing his opera on the French play La Tosca) puts the invading French forces on the side of the good guys: Cesare Angelotti, a republican dissident on the run, and Mario Cavaradossi, a painter who helps him hide in a church. Pursuing Angelotti is the wicked Scarpia, chief of police for the royalist government of Naples. But Scarpia has his sights on another target: Floria Tosca, a singer and Cavaradossi’s tempestuous girlfriend. Scarpia, using classic movie-villain logic, knows that the best way to impress a lady is to torture her boyfriend in front of her, which he does until she gives up Angelotti. Scarpia pushes his luck too far though, when he presses her to give into his carnal wishes in exchange for her lover’s life. Instead she stabs him. A whole third act follows with even more implausible devices, including a mock execution, ending abruptly with the diva’s inevitable tragic death as she dives (in this case, belly-flops) to her doom from the prison walls.
Playing the title character is Patricia Racette, a soprano who won high praises in the same role with the Met in 2010, and who also starred in last season’s Iphigénie en Tauride here in D.C. Indeed, the cast is the highlight of the production. Racette’s singing is bright and expressive, and matched well by her body language—-especially her hands, which she puts to use to flesh out Tosca’s personality: Drumming impatiently on the church pews, she is at once pious and bratty. All this gesticulation foreshadows Cavaradossi’s “Oh sweet hands” aria in Act 3. As Tosca’s ill-fated hubby, tenor Frank Porretta holds his own with a stout voice and sympathetic demeanor. Only bass-baritone Alan Held, as Scarpia, is less memorable. Insofar as he leaves an impression, it’s mostly that he’s very tall.
But it’s hard to bring in much nuance when your character has all the subtlety of a brick. Director David Kneuss has fun with some of the hammier aspects of the opera, including giving Scarpia the costume and entrance of a 19th century Darth Vader, complete with an imperial guard. Ulisse Santicchi’s set design lends the action some grand backdrops: a musty church, a desolate prison fortress, and a lavish mansion with angles giving the illusion of a recessed foyer.
There are moments when the sheer talent of the cast overcomes Tosca’s inherent schmaltz, as in Act 3, when the chemistry between Racette and Porretta is palpable and quite touching. Otherwise, it’s a decent take on a silly story. But there are other reasons to see Tosca. The music is, in contrast to the rest of the opera, far from simple. Puccini gave his score room to meander and swell, and it holds much of the drama on its own. Several minutes at the end of Act 2 and beginning of Act 3 are without any singing at all, giving the opera a modern cinematic feel. WNO even managed to bring back Domingo to conduct the orchestra on selected nights. One could do worse than a soap opera set to marvelous music. And with Racette and Porretta on stage, some of it is even worth watching.