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‘Tosca,’ an unsinkable opera, bobs along in decent WNO outing

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Here’s to the unsinkable “Tosca.” Puccini’s popular opera has been labeled a “shabby little shocker,” updated to the fascist era, and performed by companies ranging from local amateur troupes to the Met. Dusty, unbowed and eminently recognizable, it took a languorous but proud stand at the Washington National Opera on Saturday night, staking out the Kennedy Center Opera House stage for another week and a half.

We’ve certainly seen “Tosca,” which last played here in 2011; some have seen this “Tosca,” with sets from the Seattle Opera. When a “Tosca” sets out to be true to the composer’s intentions, there’s not a lot of room for interpretation, beyond nitpicking — was the shade of Tosca’s signature red dress in Act II perhaps too glitzy for 19th-century Rome? — though Ethan McSweeny, the director, offered one nugget for debate at the end of Act I by having the painted stage sets suddenly rise into the air, enabling him to have the “Te Deum” procession change course and culminate facing the audience, surrounded by blackness.

This hardly qualifies as reinterpretation. What we focus on — producers and audiences alike — are the voices, the interpretations, the ways in which the familiar story follows its familiar course and retains its ability to move us. Saturday night was a success to the extent that yes, it did. If it wasn’t a “Tosca” for the ages, it was a solid one for the present, though the conductor Speranza Scappucci’s slow tempos toned everything down a degree or two, removing some of the bite from the music and drama.

The hidden challenges of ‘Tosca,’ very popular and very difficult to perform

Scappucci is certainly a singer-friendly conductor, allowing the singers to hold and caress the music — none more than Riccardo Massi, an Italian tenor who made his company debut as Cavaradossi, and who extended virtually every note to Mario Del Monaco-like lengths. (Del Monaco was a magnificent mid-century Italian tenor who was not shy about holding on to big notes.) Massi, however, did not always make sounds with his voice that I wanted to hear extended, particularly in the first act, when he tended toward the lugubrious school of Italianate singing, with a throaty sob lying just beneath the surface of the sound, leading him sometimes to sound bleaty and even tenuous. He steadily improved through the opera, though, saving his strongest and stablest singing for “E lucevan le stelle,” his Act III showpiece (its notes no less protracted). He also is tall, well-built and good-looking, so the audience was inflamed by the curtain call.

Keri Alkema, as Tosca, had a second role as local-girl-made-good, in that she was part of the original Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program in 2002-2004 (as a mezzo). To Tosca, a role she’s sung a number of times around the world, she brought a distinctive touch: not oversinging or forcing her voice but bringing out the creamy gentleness in parts of the role, a soft quality in a character known for her steel. Her high notes were a little wiry, but her “Vissi d’arte” was meltingly affecting, particularly at the end. And in Act III, when she reunites with Cavaradossi before their tragic end, she sang so affectingly that she made music I don’t usually find especially interesting a highlight of the evening.

Alan Held returned as Scarpia, a role he first took on in the above-mentioned 2011 production, and for which, for those of us who loved his Wotan in the 2016 “Ring” cycle, he still seems not quite ideal; he is too nuanced, both vocally and dramatically, in a role that is basically a cartoon villain. Certainly he has the stature for the part as an imposing figure with an imposing voice, but the role doesn’t play to his current strengths.

The company offered some luxury casting in the smaller roles, including the wonderful bass Wei Wu, another Domingo-Cafritz alum (and a cast member of Mason Bates’s Grammy-winning “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs”), as the Sacristan and David Cangelosi as Scarpia’s henchman Spoletta. Holden Brown was an impressive young shepherd boy who was, for some reason, called on to sweep the floor of the Castel Sant’Angelo, passing through like a stray Beckett figure with his reedy voice.

Worth seeing? “Tosca” is worth seeing at least once — and in this case, perhaps twice, because the second cast offers the soprano Latonia Moore in her company debut. In this production, certainly, whatever its weaknesses, its strengths ultimately bobbed back to the surface.

“Tosca” runs through May 25 at the Kennedy Center.

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