REVIEW | Performances propel ‘Tosca’ to near-perfection

Much oohing and ahhhing has been heard over the gorgeous, newly restored sets that grace Puccini’s “Tosca” at Seattle Opera. But it is the flawless staging and stellar performances that propel the current production into the sublime.

Stage director Jose Maria Condemi seamlessly builds the dramatic tension, from the opera’s mostly high-spirited opening through singer Floria Tosca’s efforts to save her lover, the painter Mario Cavaradossi, from his execution ordered by the vicious police chief, Baron Scarpia, in Rome in 1800. Some of that tension comes out of Condemi’s understanding of the directions Puccini wrote into the music itself, as well as his attention to details and characterization.

In the opening-night performance last Saturday, Jan. 10, the audience bestowed on conductor Julian Kovatchev a lengthy and well-earned round of applause as he took to the podium after an intermission. Kovatchev and his orchestra played perfect counterpoint to the dramatic action onstage, never overstaying their welcome or overshadowing the singers. The Seattle Opera Chorus, as rehearsed by chorus master John Keene, also drew enthusiastic applause for its lovely supporting work, particularly its thrilling rendition of the “Te Deum.

Of course, an opera production is made or broken by its singing, and there wasn’t a weak link on opening night, vocally or dramatically, even in the supporting cast. Peter Strummer’s uptight, sanctimonious Sacristan injected light humor into the opera’s opening scene. Aubrey Allicock was sympathetic as the hunted Cesare Angelotti, and Alasdair Elliott and Barry Johnson were case studies in the banality of evil as the calculating police toadies Spoletta and Sciarrone. Matthew Bratton, as the Shepherd Boy, offered a haunting “Lo de’ sospiri.” Even Craig Grayson, as the Jailer, had a surprisingly strong voice.

What makes this “Tosca” the best, however, is the tear-jerk factor. Soprano Ausrine Stundyte, who sings the title character, wears her heart in her glorious voice, pulling the emotional nuance out of every phrase. Not only was her “Vissi d’arte” a heartbreaking cry, asking God why he had abandoned her, you could even hear her edgy apprehension in the brief phrases she sang as she awaited her lover’s supposedly mock execution. I found myself tearing up as the opera ended, something I rarely do with “Tosca” — and Stundyte’s performance, along with those of Stefano Secco and Greer Grimsley, had much to do with that.

As Cavaradossi, Secco and his lovely tenor increased the poignance, particularly when he sang “E lucevan le stele” and “O dolci mani” in the final act. And without a suitably intimidating and wicked Scarpia, “Tosca” wouldn’t be nearly as moving. Grimsley was the perfect foil, with a darkly resonant voice and formidable black presence as enveloping and terrifying as a Category 5 hurricane.

Seattle Opera purchased the set, designed by the late Ercole Sormanj, in the 1960s for productions of “Tosca” that ran into the 1980s. The mostly two-dimensional backdrops are ingeniously painted to give the effect of being three-dimensional. Wear and tear over the years necessitated some deft refreshing by Seattle Opera’s technical department — the results are visually stunning.

Originally designed for the New York City Opera, Andrew Marley’s costumes reflect the empire waists and stoles of the 1800s. Designer Connie Yun’s lighting effectively enhances both the action and the backdrop’s seeming three-dimensionality. However, Yun’s use of modern blue-white light on Scarpia’s death jolted me rudely out of the 19th century — fortunately, a brief lapse in an otherwise powerful production.

Seattle Opera’s “Tosca” plays at Marion Oliver McCaw Hall (321 Mercer St.), through Saturday, Jan. 24. For tickets and information, call (206) 389-7676 or visit

 MAGGIE LARRICK is a former editor of the Queen Anne & Magnolia News. To comment on this review, write to