The Washington National Opera has kicked off a year of changes with a wildly popular if somewhat stale production of "Tosca," benefiting from a sparkling performance by soprano Patricia Racette that provides plenty of optimism as the company starts life without Placido Domingo as general director.
For the opening production of the year at least, Domingo was there to lead the transition. But if the 70-year-old legend's presence in the pit provided a sense of continuity, it was Racette's soulful performance in the title role that made Monday night's showing a success, overshadowing a couple of messy moments that might have otherwise detracted from the evening.
Tosca is a complex character, part diva and part devout, jealously doubting her man one moment and sacrificing herself for him the next. In Racette, a 46-year-old American with an intensely luminous voice, the audience is treated to a convincing portrayal of the internal conflicts that have made the Puccini opera such a rich repository for reinterpretation and a mainstay of the international repertory.
If in her initial scenes she came off more as a pestering girlfriend than fiery femme fatale, by Act 2 Racette had no problem convincingly portraying Tosca's torn conscience — agreeing grudgingly at last to give herself to the evil police chief Scarpia to save her lover, the painter Mario Cavaradossi, and then killing Scarpia instead of going through with it. Her soulful singing while making the deal with the devil was only surpassed when she discovers at the opera's end that she'd been tricked all along, and that Cavaradossi is dead.
Racette literally flies off the stage, head-first, to her own death.
It was the type of abandon the Washington National Opera needed in its second performance of what will be a challenging season. Some of the changes are positive: It has eliminated the $12 million in debt that had saddled the company in previous years and merged with the Kennedy Center as part of an effort to ensure greater financial stability. But that could also mean some lost independence as the opera house seeks to move on without Domingo, who stepped down in June after 15 years as its general director.
Monday performance was in some ways an example of museum music: performed with precision yet rooted in time. The tired Baroque sets cast a dark pallor even on the brighter moments of the plot and some haphazard direction led to a couple of head-scratching moments for the audience. The music was uneven, yet few in the crowd seemed to care.
As Cavaradossi, Gwyn Hughes Jones showed why he has a tenor perfect for the big Italian repertory. Originally trained as a baritone, much like Domingo, the Welshman bellowed out the artist's declarations of anger and revolution with effortless strength, yet was gentle enough to playfully tease Tosca and ruminate on life and love in the shadows of the gallows before the opera's tragic finale.
The same could not be said for Scott Hendricks as Scarpia, who never sounded quite big enough for the role. Playing a villain with few redeeming qualities, Hendricks might have been just a bit too sympathetic, his stabs at evil evoking more the machinations of a conniving politician than a malicious murderer.
But he wasn't helped by some of the stage direction and the orchestra under Domingo, which was overpowering and stultifying at times. Scarpia's mock clapping after Tosca's existential lament in the "Vissi d'arte" aria may have drawn laughs from the crowd, but it made light of a moment when a man is effectively trying to rape a woman. At a question-and-answer session after the performance, Domingo suggested that he would eliminate it from future performances.
Yet the most confusing scene was at the beginning of Act 3. Guards move to and fro without rhyme or reason, while Puccini's soft foreboding music ought to have been setting the stage for Cavaradossi's execution. It was as if the music and stage were utterly unconnected.
Seven more performances are scheduled through Sept. 24. The Washington National Opera will simulcast the Sept. 22 performance in a live broadcast at Nationals Park, with free seating available in the outfield grass and the stands.