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'Tosca's' Men Come Through Loud and Clear

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 8, 2005

Puccini's "Tosca" is so popular that opera lovers, visiting the eternal city of Rome, can sign up for specialty tours that stop at the historic sites where its three, swift, bloody-minded acts are set.

When Puccini fans see the distinctive round shape of the Castel Sant'Angelo (it came into view frequently during all the television coverage of the papal funeral and election), they tend to think not on its real history -- it was built as a mausoleum for Emperor Hadrian, and acquired its name when Pope Gregory the Great saw an angel on its summit -- but on its crucial role in Act III. It was from these ramparts that poor, deceived Tosca took her fatal plunge. A visit to the Church of Sant'Andrea della Valle, where Tosca's lover Cavaradossi is first seen painting a picture of Mary Magdalene (Act I), leaves one hunting in vain for the work -- this is fiction after all. And who, among opera lovers, hasn't cursed the French, who turned the Palazzo Farnese (site of Act II) into their embassy and placed draconian limits on visitors?

The Washington National Opera revived its production of "Tosca" on Friday night at the Kennedy Center Opera House. The show is thoroughly traditional in its basic outlines, and its stage design, by Alexander Beliaev, captures the postcard feel of the church, the palace and the castle. It requires three manic singers with gargantuan voices to re-create the usual mayhem -- jealousy, lust, murder, suicide -- and on Friday, the company trotted out 2 1/2 of them. When this production was last seen, in 2000, the star was the soprano (Galina Gorchakova). This time around, it's the tenor and baritone who eat up the scenery.

With Salvatore Licitra and Marcello Giordani sharing the role of Cavaradossi, the company is billing this production as a battle of the younger tenors. Both men have been promoted as possible successors to Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti, the star tenors of an earlier generation. "The search for the next 'three tenors' continues, and Washington National Opera has two of the leading contenders . . . ," reads a company press release.

Perhaps. But this sort of marketing distorts some basic facts about the voice. The Three Tenors (Jose Carreras was the third) were all very different singers, and one crucial reason Domingo and Pavarotti loom so large in opera history is their longevity. We won't know whether younger men such as Licitra (who sang on Friday) and Giordani (who begins a run of three performances on May 25) are proper successors to Domingo and Pavarotti until much further into their careers.

On Friday, it was clear that Licitra has the vocal power to produce a thrilling tenor sound. He also has a magnificent legato, the ability to join together all the notes of a phrase like a perfectly cooked piece of pasta (al dente: smooth and flexible but with each note distinct). His breath support is good, and he can sing lusciously long lines. The actual sound of the voice isn't the most distinctive or beautiful, but it's never ugly, and in "Tosca," strength and projection are about 90 percent of the battle. When he arose, bloody from torture, to cry "Vittoria!" in the second act (his team, the French, has just won a major battle), he sent shivers down the spine. There were only a few moments -- when the tone quality broadened and whitened, like toes splaying in the sand -- that made one wonder how he'll be singing in 10 years.

Cavaradossi's oppressor, the one on the receiving end of those taunting cries of "Vittoria," is Scarpia, sung in this production by the veteran baritone Juan Pons. On recordings, he doesn't always make a strong impression. Onstage, however, he is a thorough professional, a fine actor, and in "Tosca," a perfect mixture of elegance and vice. Pons's Scarpia is no thug, no crude mafioso. He is power-corrupted, but not caricatured. His voice, a dark baritone with major heft, has held up very well over the years (he first sang at the Washington Opera a quarter-century ago), and it blended nicely in the ensemble passages of Acts I and II.

Which leaves the role of Tosca, the title character, and the usual star of the show. The Venezuelan soprano Ines Salazar was at turns petulant, coy, tender and frantic, but it felt at times as if she had borrowed someone else's understanding of the role. When she tossed a chair in Act I, in a fit of jealousy, one sensed a tiny little voice in her head saying, "Here's where you toss the chair." But she grew more comfortable in the role throughout the evening, and when she sang sweetly to the lifeless corpse of her beloved (he's full of lead from a "mock" execution gone terribly awry), it had all the weepy pathos of good melodrama. Her voice, however, loses force in its middle range and she was often covered by the orchestra (conducted by Leonard Slatkin). The top notes are pure and often sweet, though she uses a kind of vocal overdrive to get them out to the back of the audience. A great voice can go from zero to 60 in an instant; with Salazar you can occasionally hear the gears shifting.

There were also moments, especially in the first act, when something was going wrong between Slatkin and Salazar, small disagreements about tempo and where to expand and contract the phrasing. Slatkin, doing a guest gig away from his usual job at the head of the National Symphony Orchestra, led the orchestra rather as one might expect a seasoned orchestral conductor would. There were lovely colors, and exciting climaxes, but not, at every moment, the strong hand of a traffic cop holding things together with precision. He's conducted opera before, but on Friday one wanted a little more of the detail work of the opera pit, and a little less of the podium showmanship he uses when in front of a symphony orchestra.

The chorus was in good form, especially in the Te Deum that ends the first act. And Christopher Stull, a local eighth-grader who sang the off-stage role of the Shepherd, has a strong, high voice guided by solid musical intuition.

Curiously, this revival has lost one of the weirder conceits of director Frank Corsaro's original production. When first seen five years ago, the painting in Act I was instead a statue. Now it's a painting, as called for in the libretto, but a painting sitting atop a column better suited for a statue. Go figure. In opera, even fixing weirdness can beget more unintended weirdness.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company