Last week at the Washington National Opera's dress rehearsal of its new production of Puccini's Tosca, I realized why this story turned out to be perfect for opera while it comes up short as a play, which it originally started out as. The events in the plot are so out-sized as to be over the top for anything less than opera. But they are also perfect as a backdrop to some glorious singing.
Washington Opera put together a nice production with a cast of good singers who haven't been heard here before. Keri Alkema was a good Floria Tosca, the diva of the title. She's even a graduate of the opera's Young Artists Training program. This is one of those rare operas where the soprano plays an opera star--I think Andrea Lecouvrer is an quite lesser-known other example. Riccardo Massi, making his debut with the company, was a solid-voiced Cavaradossi, the tenor and her lover.
Veteran Alan Held, who specializes in all kinds of operatic villains, having sung Hagen in Wagner's Goetterdaemerrung, plays a properly evil Scarpia. I had not remembered how big his part was. Held started out a bit low-powered but rose to the demands of the role in the crucial second act.
Everyone else is at a secondary level, including Wei Wu as the Sacristan, a traditional role for the indulgent over-acting that Puccini seems to expect from some oif his roles.
Tosca is famous for Puccini's use of chords, especially the dark ones that always symbolize Scarpia's presence or looming nearness. I've always regarded it as significantly different from Puccini's other major works, such as Boheme and Butterfly, because of the chords and the sheer drama, or perhaps more accurately, melodrama.
However, it provides wonderful occasions for good singers: Tosca's famed vissi d'arte ("I have lived for art")in the second act before she plunges the knife into Scarpia and Cavaradossi's e lucevan le stelle ("the stars were shining") in the last act, which offers the tenor a chance to shine in his recollection of his meeting Tosca.
My favorite memory of this opera is seeing a clip in a video bio of Maria Callas after she sings vissi d'arte and murders Scarpia, when she lights the candles and places them around him, creating a bier, and in so very formal fashion, walks off with her dignity intact. When it's done well, this is a delightful operatic experience, and it was done well at this dress rehearsal, led by conductor Speranza Scappucci.,