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Review: Austin Lyric Opera’s ‘Tosca’

Staff Writer
Austin 360

“Tosca,” is the sort of opera that shows what the art form can do, where three hours fly by.

And Austin Lyric Opera’s production this weekend at the Long Center does Puccini’s great work justice, with dramatic sets, stunning lighting, and solid performances. There’s something refreshing in the plot of “Tosca”: plausibility. Written more than a hundred years ago, Puccini uses the stylish realism of the time to deliver an exceedingly simple story that’s all the better for it.

The jealousies and miscommunications still appear, but they’re at a minimum. “Tosca” doesn’t contort itself into knots. It pulls just a few vital strings.

Political dissidents are being hunted in Rome (a lushly painted backdrop of the city is rendered in 1940s comic-book warmth, a set designed by R. Keith Brumley), by the Baron Scarpia (baritone Wayne Tigges). And when Scarpia captures Cavaradossi (tenor Scott Piper), Floria Tosca (soprano Mardi Byers) faces a horrendous proposition.

The vocal talent of these main characters is generally first rate, though some of the acting felt as though it were fleshed out in two dimensions instead of three.

“Tosca” bubbles with hints of comedy throughout, and Scarpia is played as a malevolent, capital “E,” Evil Madman, who winks at the audience and his entourage. It’s all done very convincingly, which keeps the comic tone alive even as his actions become progressively darker. But as someone once observed, the tricky thing about villains is that they rarely believe what they’re doing is evil. So it’s hard not to wonder what a real-life Scarpia, a more complex, modern villain might look like.

ALO’s “Tosca” is a joy to watch. And to hear. Conductor and ALO artistic director Richard Buckley and the orchestra give another energetic, lively performance.

How good is Puccini’s score? When the characters sing, it sings right back. Some voice in the orchestra is always called upon to enhance or contrast a singer’s words with a particular color.

And Tosca’s fall at the end? Well, there was something of Old Hollywood in it, a few tricks of the light worthy of some goosebumps. In fact, the masterful lighting design, by Austin’s Kathryn Eader is one of the show’s highlights. Characters take deep pauses to be bathed in the light of doorways and prison yards.

These, just the details in between a work that’s replete with arias and melodies that are impassioned but subdued somehow. Worth mulling over and hearing again.

ALO’s “Tosca,” directed by Michael Cavanagh, conducted by Richard Buckley, continues Feb. 1 and 2. www.austinlyricopera.org