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BWW Review: Washington National Opera's Splendid TOSCA

BWW Review: Washington National Opera's Splendid TOSCA

It's easy to see why "Tosca" is one of the most popular works in opera.

Its very musical style, broken free from the strict opera house rules before it, allows it to breathe. Singers are not urgently singing every moment. The supertitles person can take a break as it goes dark from time to time. Still, there is drama to burn in the story of an opera singer in the midst of a divided Italy in 1800.

The Washington National Opera production at the Kennedy Center is a pleasure, with three fine voices leading its drama (and earning bravos in the audience) and crisp and flowing conducting of the WNO Orchestra by Spernanza Scappucci, whose arms were in strong motion from the pit even when things had come to a dramatic halt on stage.

There was pride in the production as well, as artistic director Francesca Zambello pointed out on opening night, that the lead singer Keri Alkema was a alumna of the inaugural Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program in 2004. Then a mezzo, now a soprano with much experience in the role of Floria Tosca, she gave a compelling performance of beautiful control, portraying the singer whose love compels her to save the life of her partner, the artist Mario Cavaradossi who had hid a convict in scene one and was pursued and tortured by the corrupt police chief, Baron Scarpia. (The use of off-stage vocalization is effective, too, when we hear Tosca approaching from afar).

Cavaradossi was played with some artistic dash by Italian tenor Riccardo Massi, whose hair and stature made him a kind of matinee idol the caliber of Erroll Flynn. His voice carried a sob and power to extend notes such that the orchestra would stop and let him go ahead and extend them.

He was musical even when being tortured off stage, as a henchmen kept coming into view and showing how increasingly bloody his apron was getting from the abuse.

Still, there were orders for more torture from Scarpia, played with a menacing glee by local favorite Alan Held, a baritone whose rangy height also adds to his fearsome bearing. Held had the same role the last time "Tosca" played the Kennedy Center, in 2011. The whole sex-for-freedom ploy of the corrupt official, though, plays even less well than it did eight years ago, and nobody is sad to see him go under Tosca's knife in that dramatic encounter.

Still, Tosca acts as if she's not going to be caught for that, though she does what she has to in the final act, but not before both he issues his signature aria, "E lucevan le stelle" - as remarkable as her "Vissi d'arte" that ends Act II.

It all happens amid beautiful scenery borrowed from Seattle Opera, though director Ethan McSweeny pulls up the flats at one point in Act I, kind of ruining the majesty of the large cathedral, which contains both Cavaradossi's art, some hiding places, and a whole boys choir voiced by the Washington National Opera Children's Chorus.

The official police chief's quarters in Act II are nearly as sumptuous (but stay put). The parapet of the Castel Sant'Angelo the morning of the firing squad in Act III is lit with nuance by Gary Marder, as it moves from twinkling starlight to the pinks of sunrise.

The cast was full of nice contributions, from bass Wei Wu's Sacristan to tenor David Cangelosi as a near comic Scarpia underling Spoletta. But Scappucci's conducting was worthy of its own hosannas.

Running time: Two hours plus two 25-minute intermissions.

Photo credit: Keri Alkema and Alan Held in "Tosca." Photo by Scott Suchman.

"Tosca" by the Washington National Opera runs though May 25 at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F St NW. Tickets at 202-267-4600 or online.

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