- The Washington Times - Friday, February 13, 2009

Arriving at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts this weekend for a pair of performances, the Virginia Opera’s incredibly lavish, traditional production of Giacomo Puccini’s “Tosca” combines period spectacle with unusually fine singing.

“Tosca” concerns a flighty 19th-century diva named Floria Tosca who suddenly finds herself way over her head politically (sort of like Madonna or Barbra Streisand). We find her in the midst of a passionate fling with the painter Cavaradossi, who unfortunately is allied with a ragtag band of underground patriots who aim to overthrow the tyrannical Baron Scarpia. Returning the favor, Scarpia and his henchmen plot to torture and execute Cavaradossi and friends, offering Tosca a chance to save the painter in exchange for a one-night stand.

Despite all this lurid and arguably gratuitous onstage nastiness, Puccini wrote some of his best music for “Tosca,” and it remains an audience favorite.

As with many of America’s smaller opera companies, the Virginia Opera’s singers can sometimes be a little spotty, but not in this production. The real surprise of the evening was soprano Mary Elizabeth Williams in the title role. We’d never had the opportunity to hear her before. However, during the opening weekend in Norfolk, she blew the Harrison Opera House audience away with her dynamic, expressive instrument, creating a tremendous emotional appeal for her character seemingly without effort.

In some ways, Tosca’s antagonist is an almost comic-book villain, so two-dimensionally evil that it’s easy for a singer-actor to caricature. Baritone Stephen Kechulius’ Scarpia definitely enjoys his primal badness. Nevertheless, the singer also brings a measure of raw political will to his interpretation, rounding out the villain to an unusual degree, providing method for his madness. It also helps that Mr. Kechulius’ authoritative, knife-clean baritone and perfect diction create an overwhelming sense of menace when he’s onstage.

As the romantic but hapless Cavaradossi, tenor Michael Hayes was at the top of his game as well, boasting a robust, well-supported instrument that provided genuine gravitas for his political defiance. The remaining cast members also sang quite well in lesser roles.

The only thing that could have been improved upon in this production was Act I’s closing “Te Deum,” an operatic tour de force in which Scarpia chants his own hymn of evil against the backdrop of a church choir singing praises to God. In the Norfolk performance we attended, the chorus was barely audible, and the electronic organ music felt muffled against the orchestra, robbing this scene of some of its malevolent, sacrilegious majesty.

Nonetheless, the Virginia Opera’s “Tosca” is a real triumph for this company: good, old-fashioned, sumptuously costumed grand opera the way plenty of operagoers like it — not the kind of cheap, minimalist production that has become fashionable in recent years. Add this to great singing, and you have a production that’s well worth the price of admission even in these recessionary times.

★★★

WHAT: Virginia Opera’s production of Puccini’s “Tosca”

WHERE: George Mason University Center for the Arts, Fairfax

WHEN: Friday at 8 and Sunday at 2 p.m.

TICKETS: $44 to $98

INFORMATION: 703/218-6500

WEB SITE: www.tickets.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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