WNO’S Season Finale: Tosca

From the moment Puccini committed to turning Sardou’s now-forgotten stage potboiler into his next opera, he committed to being all about the drama. And from its first note to its last, the music tells us so. Strings stab, brass slices, drums thunder. There’s nary a quiet, and never a reflective, moment in the entire two-plus hours of running time – which, of course, makes the moments that are quiet all the more exquisite.

More than a century later, opera singers who thrive in a Tosca environment are the ones who love to act. No, not some Eugene O’Neill-August Strindberg acting you can’t see from past the third row. We mean opera acting – the flinging yourself on the floor, banging on the table or wall, shouting-screaming-snarling kind of acting. By those or any other measuring sticks we can think of, the Tosca that closes Washington National Opera’s season is a huge success. Last night’s premiere audience responded in kind.

One of the evening’s sub-narratives was an old favorite – “local girl or boy makes good.” In their curtain speech before the work’s explosive first chords, General Director Timothy O’Leary and Artistic Director Francesca Zambello framed the evening as a homecoming for soprano Keri Alkema, who began her career as a young artist with WNO’s Domingo-Cafritz program. Now an international star, Alkema seemed perfect to play the role of the ultimate opera diva, Floria Tosca.

All such happy sentiments aside, Alkema makes an extraordinary Tosca. Her acting moves effortlessly from jealous rages to playful seductiveness – and on through fear, boiling anger and, finally, the commitment to murder and die for love. Her sultry, at times almost smoky singing rides this dramatic train perfectly, especially in that ever-strange but timeless moment when all things stop and she sings her biggest aria, “Vissi d’arte.” We, along with audience members shouting “Brava!” afterward, would not be surprised if Tosca becomes one of Alkema’s most popular roles.

Italian tenor Riccardo Massi apparently never met a long, ringing top note he didn’t like. Happily, Puccini put in a bunch of them, including the famous/infamous Act II shout of “Victoria!” that some tenors turn into a competition. More important than that single moment, however, both his singing and his acting make us believe that here is a man in love with his art, with his woman and with freedom from oppression for his country. All those are big loves indeed, and Massi gives us singing that matches them in size. It’s easy to see why Radames in Verdi’s Aida is another of his favorite roles.

As villainous Baron Scarpias go, America baritone Alan Held keeps his histrionics under wraps. Some Scarpias are too much like Snidely Whiplash, losing some of the menace of a great white shark below the surface of the water. All the same, evil blazes from the singer’s eyes as he works through his profane plan to send Mario to the gallows and Floria to his bed, with the apparent approval of his God in the pounding “Te Deum” that closes the first act.

Tosca is a Big Three kind of opera, but that shouldn’t undervalue the contributions of Wei Wu as the humorous Sacristan, Michael Hewitt as revolutionary Angelotti, or David Cangelosi and Samson McCrady as Scarpia henchmen Spoletta and Sciarrone. Young Holden Browne offers a brief but fine cameo as the Shepherd Boy, though exactly why a shepherd is sweeping the floors of Castel sant’ Angelo prison does baffle us a bit.

Some opera productions, and stage directors, pride themselves on tossing all traditions on their ear, but singers who’ve sung a traditional Tosca anywhere could step right off the plane into performing this one. The sets from Seattle Opera are lovely and nicely lit by Gary Marder, suggestive of Rome’s interwoven passion for religious fervor, political corruption and money. Director Ethan McSweeny lets the story feel like it’s telling itself, which is pleasurable for a change, and seldom have we seen a conductor love every note in the score as much as Speranza Scappucci seems to here. She is from Rome, after all. Maybe they’re playing her song.

Photos by Scott Suchman

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