Even though, unlike most American opera lovers, I am not a big fan of Puccini’s music, Tosca has a very special place in my heart. Set to the most heartbreaking and overwhelmingly beautiful music, this story of a classical love triangle ending in the three deaths never gets too old or too boring. Because over the years its catchy arias have earned the title of opera favorites, it comes as no surprise that we tend to have very specific and quite conservative expectations of every production of Tosca. We know exactly what we want to hear and how we want to hear it.

Patricia Racette and Alan Held © Scott Suchman
Patricia Racette and Alan Held
© Scott Suchman

Traditionally, it is believed that both the success and the failure of a Tosca production are in the hands of the tenor. It’s up to him to mold us into our seats just a few minutes into the opera with his soaring ode to art Recondita armonia, and tear our hearts to pieces with his farewell E lucevan le stelle. In addition, the tenor is expected to form a vocal and dramatic chemistry with his Tosca, thus filling even the most cynical of hearts with compassion and most importantly, hope.

Two nights ago the WNO’s season opening production turned out to be quite a revelation. Not only did it change my traditional vision and expectations of this opera – it allowed me to look at it at quite a different angle. Because David Kneuss’s production set in a pleasantly conservative scenery was to star a trio of opera celebrities: an acclaimed Puccinian tenor, Frank Porretta, and two Metropolitan Opera regulars, soprano Partricia Racette and bass-baritone Alan Held, the evening promised to be a blast. It certainly was, but not in the way I expected.

Porretta’s Cavaradossi did not impress. Even though not fully deprived of tonal beauty and dark, almost baritonal undertones, his voice sounded much too strained in challenging passages. His high notes were audibly forced out and his shifts to the high register sometimes too rough. Sadly, these technique difficulties prevented the tenor from developing a strong character able to stand up to his Tosca, masterfully sung by Patricia Racette.

Ravishing in her crimson dress and ruby tiara, Racette came across as a dark and sensual heroine, a true femme fatale. Hers was the Tosca pure enough to bring tears to your eyes with her deeply emotional Vissi d’arte, demonstrating the vocal range and breath control that could humble the greatest sopranos in opera history. Yet, hers was the Tosca vicious enough to stab Scarpia with almost too much readiness for it to pass for her first murder experience. Both vocally and dramatically, Racette’s Tosca presented a major challenge. To stand up to this woman, one had to be as strong, or stronger. To create chemistry with this woman, one had to be as dark. Or darker.

And so in came Alan Held, whose dominating Scarpia boasted a dark powerful voice, superb tone and magnetic stage presence. In short, when Held was on stage, he ruled! Even in the grand chorus of Te Deum, one could still hear his distinct voice. And then the impossible happened.

Just like two minuses that add into a plus, Held’s Scarpia and Raccete’s Tosca formed an impossible, yet exciting chemistry. Even though their vocal contrast made them opposites and enemies, their dark energy built on hatred and lust made them equals. Strangely similar in their desire to achieve their goals at any price, they made an unbeatable duo, having turned Act 2 into a bloody pinnacle of the opera. What a fresh and unexpected turn! What an impossible chemistry!

As I was leaving the Kennedy Center that night, still stunned with what I just saw and heard, I had questions.
Did Puccini actually mean for his opera to be staged and performed the way it has been for the past century?
Did he want us to expect or to explore and ask questions? What are the chances that the composer secretly hoped that his audience would re-think the essence of goodness and evil in general, and of his characters in particular? Finally, could it be that Puccini wanted us to realize that two minuses will always end up being a plus? And if so, is it possible that I just saw the other side of Tosca?