Wolf Trap Opera’s Tosca: A Scarpia for the Ages

(Spoiler alert – plot details are revealed in this blog report)

 Original Tosca poster. In public domain from  Wikepedia .

Original Tosca poster. In public domain from Wikepedia.

Tosca is not the opera to attend to introduce your children to opera.  It is violent, even brutally so, and profane, not so much in language, but by deed.  It has shocks; there is an attempted rape, two suicides, and two executions.  It has one of the most purely villainous characters in performance art. Yet, it is a love story and a story about commitment to higher callings.  But, do not go gently into this good opera.  It is Shakespearean; all the main characters die in the end.  It portrays local villainy against the backdrop of violent history.  Honestly, Quentin Tarantino, why haven’t you tried staging this one?  This is not a bedtime story.  One would guess that it would be a story that keeps you from sleeping, but it does not.  I suspect that after the play you might have trouble sleeping.  Why not the opera?  Because Puccini’s music and arias wraps this dreadful story in beauty and hope.  The music gives the drama an immediate jolt and swirls around it, pushing the story to its inevitable finish, adding a few lightning strikes along the way.  Composer Giacomo Puccini and librettists Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica brought this opera, based on Victorien Sardu’s play, to the stage in 1900.  Yet, the themes are as modern as today’s headlines: conflict wrought through the interplay of love, honor, lust, authority, and evil.  Puccini’s music makes you feel these themes differently than the visuals do.  While your eyes must deal with the barbarity, the music makes us feel, through its art and beauty, that love and honor are worthwhile, even against insurmountable obstacles,…and we can sleep.  There is good reason that Tosca remains among the top ten operas each year in terms of performances and attendance.

 Kihun Yoon as Scarpia.  Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

Kihun Yoon as Scarpia.  Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

Wolf Trap Opera’s Tosca, Friday night at the Filene Center, was a crowd-pleaser in music, singing, and story-telling.  It displayed some of the finest young singers that WTO has put forward, which is saying quite a lot.  The standout for this performance was baritone Kihun Yoon.  From his entrance on the stage attired as police chief Scarpia, which gave me a momentary feeling that the evil Count Dracula had appeared, until his last gasps, he dominated the stage.  Every move was evil incarnate, and his baritone had softness when guile was needed, a natural beauty in each utterance, and amazing power to command at his will.  The oozing sound when he was dying was not the blood leaving his body, but air leaving the stage.  As marvelous as Alexandra Loutsion as Tosca and Mackenzie Gotcher as Cavaradossi were, this was Scarpia’s Tosca.  The audience agreed.  Mr. Yoon came onto the stage to take his bow before Gotcher and Loutsion, but it was then that the applause became thunderous and the audience sprang to its feet.

 Mackenzie Gotcher as Cavaradossi and Alexandra as Tosca. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

Mackenzie Gotcher as Cavaradossi and Alexandra as Tosca. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

I must emphasize, however, how good Loutsion and Gotcher performed as the lovers, Tosca the singer, and Cavaradossi, the painter.  Perhaps if they had come out first the audience would also have stood.  I had not heard Ms. Loutsion previously.  She has a beautiful soprano voice and played her part convincingly, from coquettish glances at Cavaradossi to venomous looks to Scarpia.  I have written about Mr. Gotcher before.  He has one of the best tenor voices I have heard and sang marvelously.  He is a sure-fire future opera star.  The remainder of the cast were stellar as well.  I rather expected to see bass-baritone Richard Ollarsaba in the role of Scarpia based on his previous roles, but he was also an excellent choice for the haggard and pleading, escaped political prisoner, Angelotti.  Anthony Robin Schneider's bass was almost too impressive for the role of a Sancristan, though he played it well with gruff and humor.  Tenor Nicholas Nestorak was a fine supplicant in a supporting role as the police agent carrying out Scarpia's orders.  Puccini’s music was ably provided by the National Symphony led by conductor, Grant Gershon.

 Kihun Yoon as Scarpia and Alexandra Loutsion as Tosca. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

Kihun Yoon as Scarpia and Alexandra Loutsion as Tosca. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

Now here’s the part I had problems with, the set and visual effects.  The set for act one imagined the inside of a cathedral with an imposing statue, angled floor and frames, and video screens within the frames.  I could accept that.  However, for me, the visual effects using the screens were only really effective in Scarpia’s aria where he boasts of his evil ways while flames were shown on the screens; this was a little reminiscent of Don Giovanni.  Act two takes place in Scarpia's office which pretty much looked like the cathedral of Act one with different pictures in the frames.  Act three had a bare stage that was supposed to be a prison courtyard for the firing squad to take aim at Cavaradossi and have a nice jumping off place for Tosca.  I spent a little time trying to imagine just where Tosca was going to take her leap; she finally stepped out onto something at the back of the stage and fell backwards.  Tosca does not need much in the way of set design.  The focus is clearly the story and the interactions between the players.  The set was imaginative as was some of the staging, but for me, it was wrong for this opera; at its creative best, the set and visual effects competed with or distracted from the story rather than supporting it.  Fortunately, this cast could have made Tosca work without any set at all.  To be fair, I heard some positive comments about the set and visual effects from the crowd leaving the theater, so my view was not unanimous.

The Fan Experience:  Other than the traffic getting in and out of Wolf Trap’s parking areas (at least they are free), Wolf Trap is a delightful place to visit, lovely setting, beautiful open air theater, lawn seating available, and picnicking encouraged; it is formally a national park.  The gods even cooperated by sending in afternoon thunderstorms to clear out the heat and humidity before show time.  The acoustics of Wolf Trap are not ideal for opera since amplification is needed to cover all audience areas, as I’ve covered before, but I didn’t find them to be a problem for this production.  One wonders, however, if the sound wouldn’t be better if the orchestra were in a pit, rather than at the back of the stage, mostly behind the set. 

It appeared to me that the place was sold out, and as I’ve noted before for previous operas at the Filene Center, it had a younger audience than we typically see at major opera venues.  One can only wonder why Wolf Trap doesn’t stage more operas here over the summer (but not at the expense of the ones in The Barns, a venue I prefer).  It was the National Symphony playing Friday night; if they can do Wolf Trap, why not Washington National Opera or Washington Concert Opera?