The Asheville Lyric Opera is no stranger to Puccini’s operas, having previously produced La Bohème and Madama Butterfly to critical acclaim. Now they can claim a third Puccini triumph with this original production of Tosca, an opera some five years in the making, according to General and Artistic Director David Craig Starkey. The strength of the show is in the uniformly excellent talents of each of the production and singing participants. The opera was sung in Italian with supertitles. The resulting musical experience, one of maximum emotional torque magnificently acted out and carefully crafted with some dramatic elements newly envisioned, surpasses any expectations one may have of a local opera company.

Guest Director David Carl Toulson has staged the production around the “multiple crises of faith” that assault each of the principal characters. The set designs by Julie K. Ross replicate in beautiful detail some of the most iconic buildings of 19th-century Rome: the Sant’Andrea della Valle basilica church, the Farnese palace, and Castel Sant’Angelo prison. Conductor Dan Allcott did a fantastic job of directing the small pit orchestra and cuing the singers.

The singers caught in the crosshairs of conflict were simply magnificent in their individual abilities and beautifully matched as an ensemble. Kathy Pyeatt sang the title role of Floria Tosca. Dressed in relatively simple empire-era gowns which accentuated her slender figure, Tosca appears less as theatrical diva and more like a vulnerable, ordinary woman. By her placement on stage at always the lowest level amid the overpowering architectural symbols of power around her, Tosca is “trapped.” Stephen Mark Brown as her lover, the painter Cavaradossi, moved fluidly through the metamorphosis of his character from artist to hapless prisoner. Galen Scott Bower portrayed the arch villain Scarpia with uncanny élan and no shortage of sinister smiles. Dominic Aquilino was the fugitive political prisoner Cesare Angelotti who ultimately, like Tosca, takes his own life. Scarpia’s henchman Spoletta was sung by Ric Furman. The role of Sacristan was sung by Roberto Flores, and Sciarrone was by David Fields.

The arias are always highpoints in the opera and this one was no exception. We first meet Cavaradossi in “Recondita armonia,” and from that point the audience was hooked (the applause was huge for a “first” aria). Tosca did not disappoint with her gut-wrenching “Vissi d’arte,” sung on her knees as Scarpia faces the back wall. He heartlessly responds with faint applause, overtly mocking her. Cavaradossi’s “E lucevan le stelle” soared to the rafters, reminding us why we keep coming back to hear fresh interpretations of these iconic works. Each of these showstoppers received tremendous applause. However, as important as these musical highpoints were, I was as impressed with the build-up of each scene to arrive at these flashpoints.

The production was heavily laden with symbols which could not have gone unnoticed. The principal one was the crucifix, first hanging over the altar in Act I, then appearing as a painting in Act II which also functioned as a door to the interrogation room where Cavaradossi is tortured. The altar crucifix descends at the opera’s end over the prison parapet where Tosca jumps to her death, cementing the theme of martyrdom. At the end of Act II when Scarpia lay dead and where Tosca traditionally places candles at his head and a crucifix on the body, this Tosca places her shawl over him. This item of clothing had been lustfully fondled by Scarpia earlier in the act as he anticipated his entrapment of Tosca, and with this vengeful gesture she seals her murderous deed.

The orchestra did a credible job with this evocative score, though I wanted to hear more string players. This thin coverage could not mask some sporadic intonation problems which unfortunately occurred at key moments (such as during Scarpia’s letter writing in Act II), when there was no singing and the orchestra was fully exposed. There were some great moments too, particularly the clarinet solo in Cavaradossi’s “E lucevan le stelle” played by Fred Lemmons.

With the elements of religious pageantry, political struggle, and personal intrigue so wondrously and creatively woven together in this production of Tosca, Asheville Lyric Opera has reached a new highpoint in its history. Bravo, tutti! Thanks go to the production sponsors HomeTrust Bank and Boys Arnold Trust Company.