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Friday, September 23, 2011

Opera Review: Storming the Capital

Tosca at the Washington National Opera
Extraordinary rendition: Baron Scarpia (Alan Held, right) terrorizes Tosca (Patricia Racette.)
Photo by Scott Suchman © 2011 Washington National Opera
Thursday night's performance of the Washington National Opera's current run of Tosca featured the dynamic presence of soprano Patricia Racette in the title role, opposite the dastardly Scarpia of baritone Alan Held. Legendary super-tenor Placido Domingo, the company's former director, conducted.

The production (imported to the nation's capital from the Dallas Opera) opened with a sharply drawn, well-played church scene, that, despite a few muffs in the orchestral pit, climaxed in a mighty Te Deum. The multi-leveled church set may have seemed like an odd idea, but it kept the crowd of bishops, churchgoers and choirboys well above the main stage, allowing Mr. Held to dominate the action. Tenor Frank Porretta sang a careful "Recondita armonia." His first scene with Ms. Racette had some spark, but their great love affair did not ignite.

The confrontation between Scarpia and Tosca in Act II was the centerpiece of the evening. Ms Racette, decked out in a tiara and gown that recalled the costuming of the late Maria Callas, fought bravely for the life of her beloved Mario Cavaradossi, the painter who has run afoul of the law. Mr. Held, in a black and silver frock coat, swung between oily charm and grinning, lupine cruelty as he toyed with Tosca in an ill-fated attempt to ravish the diva.

This scene boasts one of Puccini's biggest hits: Tosca's lament "Vissi d'arte." For this famous aria. Ms. Racette eschewed the traditional Callas-style sprawl across the stage, choosing to sit, shattered and grief stricken as she produced the first notes of the aria. As the vocal line changed, climbed and soared, Ms. Racette gathered fresh power, moving the audience with the depth of Tosca's conflict and the impossible choice she faced.

Anyone familiar with Tosca knows that this scene ends in bloodshed--when the diva stabs the evil police chief with a dinner knife and takes the signed pass that (may) allow her and Cavaradossi to escape. The entire scene burst with kinetic energy, and enough chemistry between Mr. Held and Ms. Racette to suggest that in another, non-Puccini universe, that the copper and the show-stopper had the makings of a smoking couple.

Mr. Porretta has a promising instrument. But the singer lackedthe ringing, clear notes necessary to cut a convincing figure as Cavaradossi. Puccini lovers hold their breath for big moments like the "Vittoria!" monologue or the final bars of "E lucevan la stella," but neither number carried the force and conviction that makes this character go from a dilettante painter, to a fiery revolutionary, to a martyr in the course of three acts. He was better in his Act III duet scene with Ms. Racette, singing "O dolce mani" with affection instead of irony.

With its massed Act I chorus, offstage cantata in Act II and Act III sunrise over Rome, Tosca presents a serious challenge to any conductor. Puccini packed dense ideas into the score's pages. For the most part, Plácido Domingo did an effective job in the Kennedy Center pit, However, there was an audible, muffed brass cue in the first act and the last section of the Te Deum failed to achieve blast-off. The climax, with Tosca's leap to oblivion, was tautly presented, traditional, and most satisfying.

Last night's performance was the subject of a live telecast shown on a big screen at nearby Nationals Park, the home of Washington DC's Major League Baseball team, the Washington Nationals. In a gesture to the fans watching the show from the ballpark, Mr. Held remained in costume, joining the entire cast for a rare bow after Act III. Along with Mr. Domingo, the artists donned scarlet Nationals hats for a photo-op. However, Mr. Domingo tossed his into the audience.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.