Puccini’s Tosca is one of the most supremely theatrical operas in the repertory, full of raw emotionalism and unrelenting in its dramatic tension. At its heart, the opera is a fierce battle of wills between the passionate diva Floria Tosca and the reactionary Papal State police chief Scarpia’s cynical corruption. In the Washington National Opera’s season opening production Saturday night, that conflict emerged as a decidedly one-sided affair, with the evening’s one star – the radiant soprano Patricia Racette – outshining an otherwise lackluster cast and production.
A relatively recent addition to Racette’s repertory, Tosca has quickly become one of her signature roles. On opening night, Racette sang with a richness of tone, an impressive range of vocal color and dynamics, and a keen sensitivity to the unfolding drama. An artist of uncommon intelligence, Racette captured the kaleidoscopic aspects of Tosca’s personality with vocal honesty and without resort to histrionics: jealousy, coyness, humor, impetuosity, rage, and full-blooded, unapologetic ardor. The sprawling lines of her aria “Vissi d’arte,” sung with warmth, realism, and impeccable phrasing – if with a bit of a wide vibrato – conveyed a heart-rending emotional vulnerability.
Yet long stretches of the evening failed to captivate – not an easy feat considering Puccini’s masterful theatrical sense and the opera’s lurid verismo plot featuring a prolonged torture scene, attempted rape, murder, and a spectacular suicide finale. Originally based upon Sardou’s five-act play La Tosca, Puccini’s opera is radically condensed, wears its emotions on its sleeve, and is designed to deliver thrills from start to finish. Yet Racette rarely received the dramatic interplay she needed from either of her co-stars or from the orchestral pit.
Placido Domingo, a renowned Cavaradossi earlier in his career, conducted with a singer’s sensitivity to Puccini’s lyrical lines, favoring broad tempos and drawing a rich, opulent sound from the orchestra. Yet Domingo’s lyrical indulgence and insufficient attention to Puccini’s fluctuating tempos often dissipated tension and arrested the dramatic momentum of the score, particularly in Act 2. While the powerful and luxuriant string playing, in particular, was undeniably attractive, the orchestra in crucial moments simply lacked urgency and bite. It also often overpowered the singers.
Vocally and dramatically, Alan Held’s Scarpia was no match for Racette’s Tosca. Held, who has sung the role of Wagner’s Wotan to strong reviews, is really a Heldenbaritone whose voice may be too thick for certain dramatic Italian roles. Lacking in vocal bite, Held sounded murky at times, particularly in Act 1, and could not cut through the massed forces of the chorus and orchestra at the close of the “Te Deum” (admittedly, not an easy feat). Held’s was a perfectly respectable vocal and dramatic performance, yet the role of Scarpia calls for something other than perfect respectability. Held did not evoke the full depths of the character’s chilling psychosexual depravity and had little chemistry with Racette in their crucial scene in Act 2.
Held fared better, though, than the opening night Cavaradossi, Frank Poretta, who was clearly experiencing vocal trouble for which allowances must be made (he broke off a note in “E lucevan le stelle” and could not deliver in his big tenor moments). In fairness, any judgment must be reserved.
Director David Kneuss’s staging, a revival of Giulio Chazalettes’s 1987 period production for the Dallas Opera, is firmly in the traditional camp. The sets are far more opulent than the bare-bones staging of last year’s season opener, Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera – yet I suspect the singers could have benefited from a less imposing, more intimate set design, particularly in Act 2. The singers could have also gained from more dynamic direction. The only inventive moment in an otherwise staid staging was Scarpia’s sarcastic applause after “Vissi d’arte.”
Despite these reservations, Puccini’s indestructible score nevertheless delivered genuine thrills in many of the places it should have: the masterful close of the “Te Deum” in Act 1, the chilling lead-in to the torture scene in Act 2, and the thundering theme from “E lucevan le stelle” that brings the opera to a devastating finish. Along with Racette, the composer himself emerged as the true star of the evening.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 40 minutes, including two 20-minute intermissions.