The “Tosca” of Giacomo Puccini is one of the world’s great operas. Happily, as witnessed in the current production of the Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center, it is also a suspenseful political thriller. It harks back to the Napoleonic era, in which a Republic was founded in Rome only to be put down by authoritarian forces.
Caught in this web are the opera singer Floria Tosca (“Tosca” is an opera about an opera singer) and the painter Mario Cavaradossi, the latter of whom is protecting the deposed leader of the Roman Republic, recently escaped from prison and now fleeing for his life. “Tosca” is highly melodramatic, and thus needs a larger-than-life villain. Enter Baron Scarpia, head of the dreaded Roman police who uses torture on Mario and an incredible slyness on Tosca in order to arouse her jealousy and turn her against her lover Mario.
The production has beautiful, evocative sets, placing one in a beautiful Italian church and the seeming palace room which is the headquarters of the Gestapo-like Roman police. Indeed, the sets are done with such verisimilitude that they may be the closest one can get to Italy without taking a summer trip to Europe! The church also contains Mario’s large painting of a blonde, blue-eyed, and exceedingly attractive woman at her devotions – a painting which arouses the jealousy of the dark-haired prima donna Tosca. “Mario, make her eyes darker like mine!” Tosca says at one point.
Tragic grand opera is not often associated with comedy, but early portions of the opera actually have much humor, not the least of which is exhibited by the Sacristan, played to enjoyable comic effect by bass Wei Wu.
Yet we have not spoken of the magnificent singing of the singers portraying Tosca, Mario, and Scarpia. Soprano Keri Alkema as Tosca is in superb voice as she sings of Mario’s villa, that “nest of mystery and romance, of groves and verdant meadows” (“Non la sospiri, la nostra casetta”). Tenor Riccardo Massi (Mario) performs equally well, especially in Act III during his beautiful and plaintive “E lucevan le stelle,” one of the best known arias in “Tosca” and indeed all grand opera. Yet he is at his most passionate in singing the praise of the dark, fiery beauty of Tosca’s eyes in Act I.
The greatest moment in this production appears at the end of Act I, a scene dominated by the evil but grandiose Scarpia, portrayed by Alan Held. With commanding presence and a rich baritone, Held is both compelling and haunted as he sings of his lust for power and of Tosca’s ability to “turn my thoughts away from God.” As Scarpia sings this “Te Deum,” the church — through the magic of stagecraft — disappears and the entire backdrop behind him becomes a sinister black.
The orchestra, directed by Speranza Scapucci, is splendid. This is enormously advantageous in any production of “Tosca,” as the characters are introduced by leitmotifs to set melodic phrases, such as a bright, luxurious passage for the heroine Tosca and a dark minor key passage for Scarpia. As stated, this is melodrama, with the orchestral score working much the way it does in suspense films.
“Art is the great enigma, mixing total opposites together,” sings Mario. This is perhaps what renders Puccini’s “Tosca” stupendous art as Puccini mixes his own unconventional palette: the juxtaposition of comic moments with tragedy, a stark prison set under beautifully starry skies, and the “pure and gentle hands” of Tosca clasped in pious prayer – hands which yet may be forced to commit a hideous crime. Audiences, even those not accustomed to great opera but who enjoy a suspenseful story, are encouraged strongly to see this production, directed superbly by Ethan McSweeny, before it closes on May 25.