Serviceable ‘Tosca’ signals business as usual at Washington National Opera

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly attributed a donation to the late Eugene B. Casey. The donor is his wife, Mrs. Eugene B. Casey.

September 11, 2011

When Puccini’s “Tosca” was scheduled for the start of the 2011-12 season, the Washington National Opera didn’t know that the work would mark the start of the company’s new incarnation as a partner, or arm, of the Kennedy Center. But Saturday night’s “Tosca” proved a fitting symbol of continuity, familiarity and tradition. After months of backstage drama, the merger has gone through, and Mrs. Eugene B. Casey, the donor whose resistance almost put a spoke in the wheels, even underwrote the opening night. Opera in Washington will go on as usual. The challenge now is to get “usual” a little bit better.

Not that this was a bad “Tosca”; it was merely a serviceable one. Saturday’s audience saw the kind of patchwork production that’s becoming a norm in these financially tough times. The sets, by Ulisse Santicchi, came from the Dallas Opera’s production by Giulio Chazalettes; the direction was by David Kneuss; WNO made Santicchi’s costumes. It’s a way to get opera onstage, but it lacks a strong single vision.

Should it? Do we need new productions of everything? Answering such questions in the affirmative is becoming a luxury many opera houses can’t afford — though, one wonders, if money is tight, why WNO didn’t simply bring back the Frank Corsaro production from 2000, last seen here in 2005?

Offsetting the patchwork was Patricia Racette’s luminous, compelling Tosca. Racette said a few days before the performance that the role fitted her voice better than Gluck’s “Iphigenie en Tauride,” which she sang here in May, and she was right. Her top notes can be prone to shrillness and sometimes spread with a pronounced vibrato that throbs around the pitch, but her singing never sounded as if she were stretching, even if some might prefer a larger sound in the role.

Her Tosca is not a larger-than-life diva, but a very human character, her glamour nearly an afterthought. And her coquetry with Frank Porretta’s burly Cavaradossi was sweetly sexy. Porretta is an honorable and musical singer who sounded uncharacteristically strained in this role — and he had an unfortunate crack in “E lucevan le stelle,” his big Act 3 aria — but Racette’s Tosca made you like him because she did.

Alan Held, who has demonstrated his Wagnerian mettle at WNO many times, changed gears to essay his first-ever Baron Scarpia. It’s a tough role for a singer who is, like Racette, known for thoughtful interpretation rather than sheer vocal heft. Scarpia is such a cartoon villain, blaspheming and torturing and lusting, that he’s hard to pull off (though if Robert De Niro sang, I’d love to see him try it).

Tall and elegant in a curly gray wig and embroidered coat, Held sang solidly, though with a slightly anodyne quality. He wasn’t helped by the staging: The “Te Deum,” in which he sings in church of his sexual desire for Tosca, was static, with the choirboys and priests standing on an upper level of the set and Scarpia isolated below, as if it were an oratorio.

The company’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists deserved a hand, not only because some of them sang at the Millennium Stage in the lobby before the show. D.C. native Kenneth Kellogg returned for his second WNO season as a striking Angelotti who seemed destined for a bigger role. Jegyung Yang had a nice turn as the offstage Shepherd Boy at the start of the third act (leaving half the audience wondering who she was when she took her curtain call). And Valeriano Lanchas, part of the first crop of Domingo-Cafritz artists in 2002-03, was a nice surprise as a full-voiced Sacristan. Local singer Robert Cantrell was a big, warm presence as the jailer.

All the performances were hampered, indeed sabotaged, by the conducting. Placido Domingo, appearing for the first time since stepping down as general director, is a wonderful singer. But rather than supporting the singers, his conducting either drowned them out or tripped them up. He got warm applause, but I’m not sure his presence sells enough tickets to make up for spoiling the evening. Surely there are other ways to include him in WNO’s future.

Before the show, the Kennedy Center chairman, David M. Rubenstein, took the stage with the opera’s new president, James A. Feldman — a change indeed after the three-term stewardship of Troubled Assets Relief Program “pay czar” Kenneth R. Feinberg. Feldman emphasized the word “national,” although it has become a millstone around the neck of a company that has nothing particularly “national” about it.

There’s more room for a truly national company, though, now that the New York City Opera, known for its commitment to American singers and works, is struggling to survive. Opening the season with three American singers in the leads suggested a way that the “new” WNO could redefine itself to become an American company in the nation’s capital.

Tosca

Through Sept. 24. The production will also be broadcast live on the Jumbotron at Nationals Stadium in the now-annual free performance called “Opera in the Outfield” on Sept. 22 at 7:30 p.m.

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