A Toast to Tosca

International soprano Patricia Racette, a Houston favorite for many seasons, has taken on the juicy title role in Giacomo Puccini's meaty Tosca (1900) at Houston Grand Opera for the first time in her career. The question is, what's taken her so long?

Tosca is a difficult character to play, partly because she's so real, yet so oversize. It's hard to be subtle when you're playing prime-time operatic emotions like Love, Jealousy and Fear. Yet the role fits Racette's voice, her temperament and her finely tuned dramatic instincts like an opera glove.

The story takes place in Rome. Tosca is in love with the painter Cavaradossi, who is helping his friend Angelotti, an escaped political prisoner, hide from the authorities. In Act II, Tosca is asked to betray Cavaradossi to the odious chief of police, Scarpia, who lusts after her, by revealing Angelotti's hiding place. While Scarpia eats dinner, Cavaradossi is being tortured in the adjoining room. To save him, Tosca tells all. When Scarpia demands payment for the lovers' escape by forcing himself on her, she stabs him with his own dinner knife. "Here is Tosca's kiss," she hisses, then mocks him as she places candles by his outstretched arms and her own crucifix on his chest in ironic final rites.

Puccini and his expert lyricists Illica and Giacosa — also responsible for his earlier smash hits La Bohème (1896) and Madama Butterfly (1904) — stir up the ultimate in Italian verismo. Sex and violence drive this opera.

For all its rich, cholesterol-laden melodrama, Tosca's music seduces and pulls you in. Not many operas can boast such a sparkling array of music: Cavaradossi's two stellar arias, "Recondita armonia" ("Strange Harmony") and "E lucevan le stelle" ("And the Stars Were Shining"); Tosca's world-famous show-stopper "Vissi d'arte" ("I've Lived for Art"); and the joyous "Vittoria" ("Victory") that Cavaradossi and Tosca belt out to defy Scarpia. No wonder it's one of the world's most popular works.

Tenor Alexey Dolgov sings the impassioned, impetuous Cavaradossi with such grace and finesse, you'd never know this is one of the most demanding of all tenor roles. He can even wear a greasy-looking period wig and make it look becoming.

But while bass Raymond Aceto resembles a most convincing, lecherous Scarpia, he has a tougher time maneuvering through the higher reaches of this baritone part. His voice gets lost sometimes amid Puccini's thunder, but he matches Racette for dramatic wiles, and their lethal Act II confrontation is edge-of-seat drama.

HGO's physical production is plain ugly: drab colors, off-putting setting (the same enclosed place is used for all three acts, with an inexplicable broken hole in the ceiling), mismatched costumes and ill-conceived flourishes (Scarpia's henchmen resemble him; they're bald and stocky, in white shirts and trench coats, like a quintet of Mini Me's). Director John Caird of the Royal Shakespeare Company has impeccable theater credentials, but here he strikes out.

The evening belongs to maestro Patrick Summers, who summons all the crashing tutta forza from the HGO orchestra without sacrificing any of Puccini's characteristic shine, and to Racette, whose Tosca debut shines just as brightly.

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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover