The very soul of opera lives in glorious music and a sense of beauty, yet "Tosca," a fearsome tale of torture, murder, treachery, lust, execution and suicide — not to mention jealousy, brutality, fear and terror — is one of the most frequently performed in professional houses throughout the world, beginning with its premiere in Rome in 1900. Ian Judge's version has been performed twice in Los Angeles alone within the past two seasons.

With Richard Armstrong conducting (Placido Domingo conducts June 11, 14 and 21), Adrianne Pieczonka creates a wonderful showpiece for her "Tosca" debut. The Canadian soprano is bountifully endowed with beauty, grace and a superb voice. As a heroine with steel in her backbone, she has all the acting and singing chops of some of the legendary divas. The character, Tosca, in fact was a diva. As a diva playing a diva, Pieczonka even wears the jewelry worn by Maria Callas when she sang the role at the Met. It's clear that talent rubs off on crystal.

In Act I, Pieczonka is in bold voice as the jealous lover of Cavaradossi (Neil Shicoff), a painter and a rebel against the establishment and the Governor of Rome, Baron Scarpia (Juan Pons), a lusty baritone playing a godless tyrant with penchants for killing, and for beautiful women who turn on his ruthless switch.

Shicoff, who was feeling unwell on opening night, holds up his end, but as a romantic tenor with backbone, playing against Pieczonka's vocal and physical strengths, he is a poor match. Despite a strong voice but possibly because of his temporary infirmity, he seems dwarfed by the set design of the baroque church where we first meet him, as well as by his sturdy nemesis, the solid, repulsive Scarpia.

The all-red dining room of Scarpia's house, with its giant crucified Christ against its upstage wall and the sounds of violence just beyond its doors, is a perfect setting for the Scarpia vs. Tosca bout, bloodily lighted to flash on the martyred Christ figure and the shadows of the tortured Cavaradossi just beyond the wall.

Everyone knows there are no winners in this clash of giants, but the quality of Puccini's powerful music and the stunning voice of Pieczonka, haunted, as it were, by the sensitive baton of Armstrong's complex cooperation with the L.A. Opera Orchestra, makes even the empty stage resonate. (partialdiff)
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