‘Tosca’ at the Washington National Opera

kennedy-center.org | Washington National Opera's Tosca

There are at least three good reasons to see the Washington National Opera Company’s production of “Tosca” at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House.

They are Patricia Racette, Alan Held and Frank Paretta, the principals in this hugely popular and classically melodramatic opera. The fourth is Giacamo Puccini once again displaying all the reasons why he’s up there with Wagner, Verdi and even Mozart as composers of enduring operas.

“Tosca”— one of Pucinni’s three great operas that includes “La Boeheme” and “Madame Butterfly”—is probably the least familiar among his works, maybe because of its less comfortable setting (Rome in the time of the Naoleonic forays into Italy in the early 19th century) and because it isn’t stuffed with long arias or overly crowded with secondary characters. It’s Tosca, her boyfriend and her nemesis, and the rest are window dressings with lesser functions.
But Tosca, an almost feverishly passionate and direct woman, volatile as a volcano, is the main show.

She is an artist, a renowned singer (from whence we get the word diva, apparently), who’s in love with another artist, the appealing painter Cavaradossi, who sings like an angel on top of everything else. But then there’s Count Scarpia (a villain by any other name, but especially this one), the chief of the secret police, relentless, cruel, completely amoral, who’ll torture and kill anyone who gets in the way of what he wants. In this case, he wants Tosca and he’s got Cavaradossi, who’s hiding a rebel in his estate.

Scarpia puts Tosca in an impossible situation—he promises to let Cavaradossi go—staging a “fake” execution” if she succumbs to his advances, although he’s already come closing to raping her. But Scarpia has underestimated his prey even as she’s appearing to agree to the devil’s bargain.

And so it goes—love, murder, passion, betrayal and it all ends very badly, about as badly for all concerned as you get. “Tosca” puts the T into operatic tragedy to say the least. But this is what we want in tragedy—the fun and the kind of feeling and music can you get out of a happily-ever-after. Imagine if Romeo and Juliet had lived and gotten married. Not so much.

Puccini is every the innovator here: the arias—including the famous duet in the last act—are nothing less that focused, concise and powerful, not leaving room for anything less than powerful emotions. “Tosca,” like the upcoming “Lucia di Lammermoor,” is of course in the grand tradition of high dudgeon melodrama, full of improbabilities not the least of which was someone charging on stage announcing that “we’ve lost the battle.” “What battle?” you might ask, but never mind. A little thing like that never stopped lust, lost love and mayhem.

And Racette—who’s known far and wide for her “Tosca”—justifies the acclaim with her beautiful soprano voice, singing strongly and clearly, with very little, if any, showboating and a consistent acting performance that makes Tosca a full-bodied, full-blooded character.

Held, a bass—baritone who’s building a solid resume with Wagnerian performances, makes an imposing Scarpia, a man with giant appetites and a fierce, dangerous quality. He’s bigger than life and casts a huge presence. He’s answerable to no one, and you get a good idea of that when he sings of his plans and desires for Tosca wile a “Te Deum” can be heard in the background.

Tenor Frank Paretta, mainly through his gorgeous singing and his chin-out stances of bravery makes Cavaradocci a heroic, romantic figure.

You can also get a glimpse of opera legend Placido Domingo, no longer the man in charge at the WNO, but conducting for this production.

“Tosca” is the first WNO production in its new affiliation with the Kennedy Center and it’s a popular choice and a focused execution that delivers the considerable virtues of the work, it roars with melodrama, and affecting singing and performances.

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