- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 8, 2005

In a revival of its beautiful and well-received 2000 production, Washington National Opera opened its month-long run of Puccini’s enduringly popular “Tosca” Friday to a full and enthusiastic house.

In general, the audience was well-rewarded with a first-rate performance, although opening night was marred by some irritating miscues and occasionally diffident acting.

Played out against the violent geopolitical backdrop of Europe in the Napoleonic era, Puccini’s midcareer masterpiece has it all. Loaded with sex, religion, political intrigue and dictatorial brutality, including a torture scene that even Saddam Hussein might appreciate, this opera-melodrama spins the story of a popular diva and her complex love life in a Rome beset by the ruthless armies of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Like today’s pop artists, Floria Tosca is a renowned and beautiful diva who flirts with politics while carrying on a torrid affair with revolutionary artist Mario Cavaradossi. Both carry on wherever fancy suits, including the sanctuary of the magnificent church where Mario is painting a representation of Mary Magdalene.

However, their little dalliance with moral relativism doesn’t reckon on the sheer nastiness of the evil police chief, Baron Scarpia. Predictably, things don’t work out very well for anyone in the end.

At the outset, things didn’t work out very well for this production, either. While the cast and chorus sang beautifully and the Washington National Opera Orchestra played with symphonic brilliance under the baton of National Symphony Orchestra Music Director Leonard Slatkin, neither side seemed interested in helping the other during much of the first act. Singing and accompaniment were at times so badly synchronized that one might have mistaken the act for a dress rehearsal.

As opposed to a symphonic maestro, an opera conductor must communicate not only with his players, but with his singers as well, never forgetting that the orchestra is there to accompany the singers in an opera — not the other way around. Maestro Slatkin seemed almost oblivious to the frequent and annoying disconnect with his singers in the first act. Fortunately, by Act II, much of this seemed to have been remedied — but the problem never should have arisen.

In addition, Venezuelan soprano Ines Salazar proved a surprisingly diffident Floria Tosca. She showed flashes of believable jealousy in Act I, but never the sort of romantic attachment to Cavaradossi that would propel her toward eventual heroism in his defense. Miss Salazar’s singing was accurate, yet somehow lacking in passion. The chemistry just never seemed to be there, although her understated signature aria near the close of Act II was deeply moving and quite daring in context.

Far more into his role as the defiant artist Cavaradossi, tenor phenom Salvatore Licitra was at the top of his game. While not as nuanced as Placido Domingo, Mr. Licitra has a substantial instrument that he deploys with great control, and his theatrical instincts are nothing short of brilliant.

But surprise, surprise: It was the bad guy who stole the show. As the thoroughly rotten yet suave Scarpia, baritone Juan Pons was magnificent. Closing the first act, his chillingly amoral aria wrapped sinuously around Puccini’s dramatic Te Deum as it unfolded in the church — precisely the stunning and blasphemous counterpoint the composer had intended. Mr. Pons’ voice was strong, assured and, like revenge, served very cold. This was signature Scarpia, and it transformed a sometimes spotty evening into a truly memorable operatic event.

Schedule note: For the final three evening performances of “Tosca,” French soprano Sylvie Valayre will star in the title role and renowned tenor Marcello Giordani will sing the role of Cavaradossi.


WHO: Washington National Opera

WHAT: Puccini’s “Tosca”

WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House

WHEN: Evening performances are at 7:30 Friday, May 19, May 25 and May 31; and at 7 p.m. May 16 and May 28. Matinees are at 2 p.m. May 22 and 1:30 p.m. May 28.

TICKETS: $41 to $285

INFORMATION: Call 202/295-2400 or visit on line at www.dc-opera.org.

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