By every measure, Opera Carolina’s production of Puccini’s Tosca was a huge success. One of the thrills of opera is finding a live performance in which all the main cast members fully realize the musical and dramatic potential of their characters – that was clearly the case at the April 2 performance in the NCPAC’s Belk Theater, in Charlotte. Some critics and academics have dismissed Tosca as a “shabby little shocker,” but to others, it is the “perfect opera.” Its amalgam of melody and drama is a model of compositional economy. Given strong singing actors and solid direction, it never fails to please.

Cynthia Lawrence was Tosca every inch and every second. Her stage presence filled the hall and her rock-solid dramatic soprano voice was clearly audible even at lower dynamics or when she was facing away from the listeners. Her facial expressions radiated her quicksilver changes of mood. Her eyes glowered jealously at those in the painting of the Madonna; you could see her “flinging daggers.” Her notes were perfectly placed whether in quiet passages or under maximum pressure as she raged at Scarpia at full throttle. She brought out some lighter qualities such as flirtatiousness that are often downplayed.

In the tall and slim tenor William Joyner, I heard my finest live performance of the role of Tosca’s lover, Cavaradossi. His firm voice has a marvelous timbre; there is a hint of a “tear” in it, but he uses it tastefully, and no Gigli-like sobs broke his musical line. Baritone Gordon Hawkins dominated the stage as the brutal rapist, Baron Scarpia. While his voice seemed a little dry, he had it under firm control and brought plenty of nuances to his character’s quirks.

Dan Boye brought a rich full bass to the brief role of the political prisoner Angelotti – it was a fully-professional accomplishment by the Chairman of Davidson College’s Physics Department. Many productions use the role of the quarrelsome Sacristan for older baritones whose voices are starting to fray at the edges. It was a pleasure to hear the part fully sung by Donald Hartman, who combined a portrait of a hyperactive fuss box with the benefit of a still-supple voice.

Small parts were well cast with singers that sounded unstrained and who projected well. Soprano Ruth DeBoer brought instrumental clarity to the role of the off-stage shepherd at the beginning of Act III. The Sciaronne of George Washington III hinted at a rich bass in the making. Tenor Ronn K. Smith was an outstanding Spoletta. Bass John Fortson was fine in the brief role of the jailer.

James Meena conducted a tautly-controlled performance in which the action never dragged. Members of the Charlotte Symphony played superbly; there was a fine sheen on the strings. The cello section, led by Alan Black, was memorable in the scoring for divided cellos in Act III. Meena’s own translation, used for the supertitles, is superior to the usual too-brief or too-awkward lines projected by many companies. The Opera Carolina Chorus, prepared by Mark Tysinger, was up to its usual high standard, and the chorus of boys and girls – all dressed as males – sang with discipline even as they dashed about as rowdy choirboys.

Most of staging, directed by Brian Deedrick, was effective and kept the drama and momentum on track. An unusual touch was placing Cavaradossi’s painting next to a church aisle, down which numerous extras paraded. I cannot recall ever seeing so many extras going to and fro, but they were in character. This was also the first time I ever saw a Tosca take her leap off the Castel Sant’Angelo backwards. Some have thrown themselves forward, others have just leaped feet first.

Ercole Sormani’s sets – massive cloth drops with realistic architectural details in forced perspective – marked a welcome return to an older approach to design. The lighting, by Peter Dean Beck, was understated. Fleeting glimpses of stars through early morning clouds in Act III added a nice touch.