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Tosca Come Lately

Many thanks to Robert R. Reilly for this review from the Washington National Opera.

Disappointment in the Washington National Opera’s Tosca on Friday, September 16th, was assuaged by the vocal excellence in the third act, when the pivotal relationship between the two lovers, Tosca and Cavaradossi, finally caught fire. Too little, too late, alas, to make the evening a success. In most other places, it was an adequate rendition, musically and vocally, but in an opera about passion it helps to have passionate people. They were missing till late in the second act.

There needs to be believable, fervent passion between Tosca (Patricia Racette) and Cavaradossi (Gwyn Hughes Jones) to propel the drama, and in this respect, the first act fell flat. It brought me back to the way opera was done decades ago: stand there, belt, and don’t worry about the acting. How nice it might have been, had we been able to believe that the principals were actually in love. The music was effectively telling us that, but there were no sparks on stage to back that claim up.

In the first act Tosca came across as petulant and light-weight. The more Tosca is seen as a silly, jealous woman, the less effective the drama. I don’t know if this was her fault or director David Kneuss’, but Racette lacked the necessary gravitas. Several directorial miscues did not help. Why does Cavaradossi give an expressive sigh as if to say “thank God that’s over” when Tosca departs? That earns a giggle from the audience, but undercuts the credibility of his passion for her. (In fact, there were far too many laughs in the first act.) Should we be glad she has left, too?

When the Sacristan (Valeriano Lanchas) reveals details that will expose the recent presence of Angelotti in the church, why isn’t Scarpia (Scott Hendricks) fixated upon these remarks instead of casually walking around the church as if he weren’t listening? And why did Scarpia, in his turning away from God at the end of the first act (“Tosca, mi fai dimenticare Iddio!”), turn toward the Eucharistic exposition of the Benediction depicted upstage, instead of away from it as the dramatic situation demanded? Scarpia’s moment of evil triumph in the second act was ordinary—not malignant (much less satanic) enough to carry the weight of what he had done or provide the full measure of horror. These instances could be the result of directorial sloppiness, or acting deficiencies, or most likely both. They may be minor details, and I do not want to make too much out of any one of them, but I would not have noticed such things had I been convinced of the dramatic veracity of the larger whole.

This only began to happen just before Scarpia’s murder by Tosca late in the second act. Matters came alive at this point; everything coalesced and the singing in the last act was particularly fine. Racette and Jones sang beautifully together. Jones sings Cavaradossi for only three of the nine performances (one more time on the 23rd). In the Washington Post, Anne Midgette suggested tenor Frank Porretta was “strained” in the role on opening night; the same could certainly not be said of Jones’s soaring voice.

Hendricks, the Scarpia vis-à-vis Jones for those three performances (otherwise veteran Alan Held took and takes the role) looked, but did not completely act, the part. He sang well but was occasionally swamped by the orchestra. Racette was vocally stirring and showed plenty of emotion—at curtain call. Had only she deployed that emotion earlier in the evening—any time before Cavaradossi’s offstage torture scene during which her reactions began to be affectingly conveyed. Gymnastically, she took a rather spectacular leap off the parapet for her suicide at the end of act three. It was the sole moment of the evening that caught my breath. Midgette complained that Plácido Domingo’s conducting on opening night was so bad that it sabotaged the performances. Israel Gursky, an actual conductor and holding the baton on the 16th (he will also conduct tomorrow’s performance), did a perfectly adequate job. One plus in this production were the impressive sets by Ulisse Santicchi, borrowed from the Dallas Opera. For lovers of traditional opera, they must have been authentic looking in terms of period and suitably atmospheric. RRR

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