- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Kennedy Center’s Opera House buzzed with excitement Saturday evening as the Washington National Opera opened its 2011-2012 season with a ravishingly beautiful production of “Tosca,” Puccini’s timeless masterpiece of passion and political intrigue.

The companys sparkling cast included soprano Patricia Racette, tenor Frank Porretta and bass baritone Alan Held. Opening night also marked WNO’s first effort as a Kennedy Center affiliate and the center’s 40th anniversary.

Based on a popular 1887 French melodrama, “La Tosca” recounts the final days of the exquisite Floria Tosca, a popular actress-singer who’s also deeply in love with painter Mario Cavaradossi.

The painter, hard at work on a portrait of Mary Magdalene in the church of St. Andrew in Rome, is secretly an Italian patriot who’s helping hide Cesare Angelotti, a former consul of the currently defunct Roman republic (circa 1800). He’s on the run from Rome’s head cop and virtual dictator, Baron Scarpia.

Scarpia uncovers the subterfuge, imprisons and tortures Cavaradossi, and extracts an agreement from Tosca to exchange her favors for the painter’s life -without counting on the singer’s loyalty to her lover and his friends.

WNO wisely chose to utilize Giulio Chazalettes’ gorgeous period production from the Dallas Opera. With unique sets for each of the opera’s three acts, instead of the more economical “one-size-fits-all” approach, the production brings the “grand” back to grand opera.

Still, the singing is what makes any production of “Tosca” a great one. WNO is blessed here with a marvelous cast of first-rate soloists who generally helped this production to shine.

At the top of the list is Mr. Held, a WNO favorite and longtime Metropolitan Opera star bass-baritone, as Scarpia. Tall and imposing, Mr. Held clearly relishes his role as Puccini’s supervillain. An established Wagnerian, his crystal clear instruments burst through the massive orchestral and choral close of Act 1, dominating as well throughout Act 2.

As Floria Tosca, Miss Racette was passionate and convincing as a diva who though momentarily overpowered and overwhelmed recovers her heroic sense in the end.

Her delivery of Tosca’s famous Act 2 aria, “Vissi d’arte” (“I lived for art”) was dramatic yet heartbreaking.

However, most impressive was her running, suicidal leap over the castle parapets at the opera’s close.

As Cavaradossi, Mr. Porretta seemed to be having some difficulties with his voice Saturday evening. His efforts were relatively OK in the first two acts. But during Cavaradossi’s Act 3 lament, “E lucevan le stelle” (“And the stars shone”), Mr. Porrettas voice momentarily deserted him. Recovering, he carefully but bravely negotiated his way through the rest of the act.

In a delightful note, WNO’s former general director, Placido Domingo, returned to the company this week to conduct the orchestra. The players seemed happy to have him back and performed magnificently for him.

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