The big news at Sunday night’s perf was the very first Tosca of Metropolitan Opera stalwart Patricia Racette, who was recently heard as Madama Butterfly at the L.A. Opera. Because of its dramatic vocal demands, Tosca can often come off like a truck driver, but not here. Racette made this diva an especially vulnerable, tortured woman, giving an innate femininity to almost every phrase. Aiding her was young tenor Frank Porretta, who has been building a major international career in Europe proving to be the real thing: a spinto tenor with a top that’s secure — right up to Cavaradossi’s A sharp.
Porretta, who makes his Met debut as Turridu in “Cavalleria Rusticana” in January, resembles Steven Seagal in his ponytail phase, and it’s probably safe to say, despite this “Tosca” being a concert version, that just like the star of “Under Siege,” he can’t act. Porretta’s portrayal amounted to planting his feet far apart, arching back and throwing his arms out to embrace everyone this side of the Hollywood Hills.
When it comes to subtle, nuanced singing that gives an individual shape to the music, Porretta’s vocalization pretty much matches what he does visually. His is a big, beefy sound with a strong column of metal at the top. It may not be pure gold up there, but it’s sure got some ring. Unfortunately, he sang the artist Cavaradossi as if he were instead giving us the much more stentorian general Otello. There was a hint of real artistry in act three with the lyric “E lucevan le stelle,” which began promisingly with careful phrasing and a lovely mezza voce. But alas, Porretta soon resorted to his usual crowd-pleasing bellow. Too bad. He possesses a first-rate instrument, and the opera world is always in need of a spinto, if not downright dramatic, tenor.
Racette gave a far more nuanced portrait. Hers is not a plush sound, but then neither were the edgy voices of such other masters of verismo opera as Magda Olivero and Renata Scotto. Surprisingly, only Racette’s big act-two aria, “Vissi d’arte,” failed to impress due to an inability to spin out a sustained pianissimo.
Which left it to bass baritone James Morris to deliver the most successful characterization of the evening. Scarpia has long been in his repertory, and he imbued his portrayal with malevolent sotto voce details — thanks to the microphone — that don’t always carry in a large opera house. When need be, in “Te Deum,” he pumped up the volume, but did so judiciously. Porretta should take note.
Peter Hunt directed this semi-staged production. The microphones must have presented something of an obstacle course that required strategic positioning of the singers. As a result, Tosca and Cavaradossi did not embrace, and nowhere to be seen was the knife she uses to murder Scarpia. However, Bernhardt’s candles did make an appearance, as did a firing squad of three.
When it comes to open-air opera, Florence has the Arena, Rome has the Baths of Caracalla and Los Angeles boasts the Hollywood Bowl. Just like those grand, if slightly more ancient venues, the music of Verdi and Puccini is often punctuated with the rolling, errant wine bottle or someone munching on popcorn in the next seat.
It makes perfect sense for the Bowl to stick to more blood-and-guts fare, in this case Puccini’s tawdry, little shocker “Tosca,” about an opera diva (Racette) who is loved by a painter-revolutionary, Mario Cavaradossi (Porretta), and is lusted for by his political nemesis, Rome’s fascist head of police, Baron Scarpia (Morris).
What especially distinguishes the Bowl is conductor John Mauceri, who prefaces each act with an unusually detailed synopsis of the action to come. He not only gives every plot point –right down to the motivation of the most minor comprimario — but also much background trivia.