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Frank Porretta as Cavaradossi and Patricia Racette as Tosca [Photo by Scott Suchman courtesy of Washington National Opera]
21 Sep 2011

La tragedia di Tosca at the Washington National Opera

Whether or not one agrees with Joseph Kerman’s immortal definition of Tosca as a “shabby little shocker,” Puccini’s melodramma, the inaugural production of the Washington National Opera’s 2011-12 season, is intense, “blood-and-guts” kind of entertainment.

Giacomo Puccini: Tosca

Click here for cast and production information.

Above: Frank Porretta as Cavaradossi and Patricia Racette as Tosca

All photos by Scott Suchman courtesy of Washington National Opera


Like Victorien Sardou’s original play written as a vehicle for Sarah Bernhardt, Puccini’s setting has enough sex, violence, and adult themes to induce responsible parents to keep their children at home. Not that it stopped the black-tie crowd of the opening-night gala from proudly parading their adorable five-year-olds in heavily ruched floor-length gowns along the hallways of the Kennedy Center. The latter, incidentally, has now officially swallowed up the WNO after fifty-five years of that company’s independence. Still, in these dire times of budgetary horrors and declining donations such an alliance might prove a transcendent romance rather than an apocalyptic tragedy; only time will tell.

The plot of Tosca is well known, and were it not so melodramatic, I suppose it could be eligible for the prestigious label of “tragic”: after all, not a single leading character is left alive at the end of Act 3! Thankfully, this original production, courtesy of Giulio Chazalettes and director David Kneuss, for the most part does not qualify as a tragedy. Soprano Patricia Racette (Tosca) is a known quantity in DC, and has a reputation among the local connoisseurs as a superior singing actress. Throughout the evening, the singer had plenty of opportunities to prove just how well deserved her reputation was, and she missed none of them. Unlike in last season’s unfortunate Iphigénie, Racette was not constrained here either by a director’s choreographic posturing or by the need to climb precarious metal scaffolding at high pitch. Instead, her acting was realistic, and her period clothes comfortably familiar. The steps of the Castel Sant’Angelo were wide and easily mountable, lending her final leap off the battlements its startling immediacy and dramatic flair that brought out audible gasps from the audience, instead of the audible chuckles that so often result. The leap was also, of course, entirely over-the-top, but then so is the entire part: Puccini followed Sardou in making his Tosca a real diva, and Racette had almost too much fun playing a “tragic heroine playing herself.” This was particularly apparent in the opening scene with Cavaradossi, where “playing” is really all Tosca does; her jealous rage more the stuff of romantic comedy than high drama. The drama comes in Act 2, undoubtedly Racette’s best. Her performance was electric, driven by raw emotion and almost visibly crackling nervous energy, resulting occasionally in a somewhat faster tempos than are usual for the part. “Vissi d’arte” in particular was fast — or was attempting to be: the conductor simply refused to let Racette run with it. Clearly, after singing a few hundred Toscas in his career, Placido Domingo has very definite ideas of how one should and should not sound — candles or no candles (for those passionately interested in this most vital aspect of every Tosca production, by the way, this one has no candles). However, such a minor interpretational disagreement between the two stars was no tragedy. Nobody was paying much attention to it, anyway — we were all too busy watching Alan Held’s scene-stealing Scarpia.

144_Racette and Held_WNOTOSCA2011_cr. Scott Suchman.pngAlan Held as Baron Scarpia and Patricia Racette as Floria Tosca

The tall baritone presented an imposing figure on stage — not remotely Italian, he looked rather like a Nordic god of thunder. Donner is, indeed, one of Held’s signature parts; fortunately, his performance as Scarpia possessed not only the necessary hammer strokes, but also a more Wotan-esque complexity, occasionally bordering on hypnotic. Alternatively suave and terrifying, Held offered both excellent singing and stellar acting from the first to the last note. Only the opening “Credo” of Act 2 proved somewhat unconvincing in his interpretation — exactly because the rest of the role was so believable. Subtle, nuanced, sinuously seductive Scarpia created by Held would not be caught dead saying such horrible things about himself — even to himself. Much better was his feverish monolog in the Act 1 finale, the famous “Te Deum” scene.

Indeed, the “Te Deum” finale proved one of the best moments in the production, thanks to Held, a solid performance from the WNO chorus (including children’s choir), and particularly to its effective visual design (sets and costumes by Ulisse Santicchi, lighting by Jeff Bruckerhoff). In an inspired move, the gigantic crucifixion triptych that served as the backdrop through the entire act suddenly becomes transparent, revealing the interior of the cathedral, complete with the altar, priest, and parishioners, who seamlessly merge with the chorus already on stage into a single, impressive tableau vivant. Overall, the décor for the production looked good: both tastefully appropriate and appropriately expensive. The neo-classical interiors in Acts 1 and 2 were both lovely. And although the gloom of the Castel Sant’Angelo’s stone banisters was somewhat undercut by the addition of pink marble columns on each side of the stage — the leftovers from the cathedral interior of the opening act — that was also no tragedy.

073_WNO Chorus in Te Deum_WNOTOSCA2011_cr. Scott Suchman.pngWNO Chorus and Children’s Chorus sing a Te Deum (Act I)

The real tragedies — at least on the opening night — belonged, in the pit, to the orchestra that seemed yet again simply incapable of playing in tune, and on stage, to the tenore di forza. Frank Porretta’s voice has both the steely intensity of timbre and powerful projection we expect of a Cavaradossi, and he came out swinging since the opening scene, earning some well-deserved applause. However, his somewhat forced sound production was worrisome: every note felt like it was being pushed out just a little too hard. Whether or not the singer was affected by the fact that he was performing a classic heroic tenor role in front of Placido Domingo (which, granted, might unnerve even a seasoned performer), I wondered if he would have trouble sustaining his efforts through the entire evening. Predictably, Porretta’s voice broke halfway through the climax of “E lucevan le stelle,” sliding from a fortissimo high pitch into an embarrassing croak. The audience was extremely kind, but this did not help: much as he tried, the singer was not able to bring his sound back again. The remainder of Act 3 was performed in a harsh semi-whisper, which in Cavaradossi’s final duet with Tosca is simply an impossible sell. Only occasionally did we hear an echo of the metallic flamboyancy of the opening scenes; the rest was so painful to endure that one was tempted to applaud the rifle volley from the castle guard that finally put the unfortunate tenor out of his misery. Hopefully, in the subsequent performances Porretta’s pacing would improved. If so, the tragedia of this overall high-quality, solidly traditional production will have relocated to where it belongs — Sardou’s bloody melodrama and Puccini’s “shocking” score.

Olga Haldey

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