Summer stages robust ‘Tosca’

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The Summer Opera Theatre Company’s incredibly ambitious production of Puccini’s “Tosca,” which opened Saturday at Catholic University’s Hartke Theatre, features a surprisingly robust cast and some over-the-top histrionics. The result? A generally well-sung version of a difficult opera that occasionally comes across with an oddly comic touch.

Tosca,” which boasts one of opera’s nastier plots, is oddly suited to our own difficult times. The title character, a famous singer-actress, has fallen deeply in love with a free-thinking artist, Cavaradossi, who is employed painting murals in a local church. The time is the dawn of the 19th century and the place is Italy, not a modern nation at that time, but a variety of monarchies controlled in many cases by despotic thugs and their minions — like Scarpia, the opera’s bad guy, who wants to whack Cavaradossi and his pals while blackmailing Tosca for a one-night stand to save her lover.

Loaded with brutality, sexism and a prolonged offstage torture scene, this work unpleasantly conjures up visions of the current Middle East mess. Fortunately, Puccini loads his grim story with plenty of heartbreakingly beautiful music, making it even today an enduring audience favorite.

Singing in this production is almost uniformly good. Best of all, oddly enough, is baritone Jason Stearns‘ Scarpia. Mr. Stearns brings great support, beautiful diction and brilliant vocal discernment. His vocal portrayal is somewhat undermined, however, by his over-the-top approach to Scarpia’s already-distilled essence of villainy. Sort of like Snidely Whiplash meets “Dangerous Liaisons” Vicomte de Valmont.

The result is an oleaginous yet sadistic bad guy who, at times, seems more comic strip character than a human being. Mr. Stearns‘ portrayal is fun in a way, but his concluding death rattle drew more than a few titters from the audience — not the sort of reaction one expects as a brutal tragedy unfolds.

As Floria Tosca, soprano Dara Rahming’s silvery voice is a bit on the lyric side for this robust role. But she still catches the right nuances of her proud yet vulnerable character, and her phrasing was impeccably polished and assured.

Tenor Benjamin Warschawski’s robust, well-supported instrument gave great force to his role as the opera’s tragic, artistic hero. Unfortunately, in Act I, Mr. Warschawski sometimes used too much force to get his point across. On at least two occasions he pushed his voice beyond its natural limitations, resulting in strained, out-of-phase moments. In spite of today’s pop music habit of belting out highly emotional phrases, this approach is generally inadvisable in opera, particularly in a smaller acoustical space like the Hartke.

The remaining cast members sang quite well, particularly bass-baritone Kwang-Kyu Lee as the quirky sacristan.

All in all, this “Tosca” is a well-knit, polished production. With a little less emotional envelope-pushing by its principals, it could achieve a greater measure of success in its concluding performances.

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WHO: The Summer Opera Theatre Company

WHAT: Puccini’s “Tosca

WHERE: Hartke Theatre, Catholic University of America, 3801 Harewood Road NE, Washington, D.C.

WHEN: Wednesdayat 7:30 p.m., Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

TICKETS: $40 to $65, discounts available.

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