ADVERTISEMENT

Puccini’s “Tosca” is a mesmerizing nightmare of an opera. By taking on this dark, violent masterpiece, Nickel City Opera is reaching toward new heights.

This weekend’s production, which I saw in the dress rehearsal, is gripping and well-paced. It holds its own among the other “Toscas” I have seen, which include stagings by the Canadian Opera Company and the Chautauqua Opera. In certain ways it is even better.

Valerian Ruminski, the company’s executive director, has assembled a terrific cast.

Michele Capalbo, for starters, is a vivid, spitfire Tosca. She has played the part about dozen times and knows her way around the character’s dichotomy – devout Catholic on one hand, passionate diva on the other. Her voice is sure and her combination of naivete and strength was such that, when she broke into tears, I teared up too.

She has a good chemistry with Adam Klein, who is a wonderful Mario. Klein has the voice for the part, a clear, arresting tenor that carries easily over the orchestra and throughout the theater. He brings a terrible intensity to that heartbreaking Act 3 scene when he is looking back on life while awaiting execution. Admit it, too, it’s good to have a handsome Mario. If you get one without that special something, it throws the drama off balance.

A special “Bravo” goes to Theodore Baerg, as Scarpia. Baerg, of London, Ont., has had a distinguished career. Locals might know him from the Stratford Festival, where a few years ago he starred in a sold-out “South Pacific.” Now on the verge of retirement, he relished the chance to play Scarpia, for the first and probably only time in his life. His heart is in it.

Extraordinarily agile, Baerg scampers about, giving the part a demonic edge. His voice, while on the light side for Scarpia, is ice-clear and confident. At the same time he is urbane and alluring enough so that in his first meeting with Tosca, when he extends his hand to her and she takes it, it’s a strange and chilling moment.

Ruminski himself did not play the Sacristan, as he had announced earlier that he would. Overwhelmed with last-minute executive details, he jobbed the part out to Nick Kilkenny, who tended to be drowned out by the orchestra but was otherwise fine and added a touch of needed humor.

The orchestra is better than in past productions. Conducted by Michael Ching, it features such known quantities as Sal Andolina, Susie Myers, Paul Zapalowski and Phil Sims. It’s fun to watch Robert Hull, on the Mighty Wurlitzer, adding special effects like chimes and cannon. The Riviera’s side spaces come into play, too: Voices emanate from the area of the boxes. Sometimes, they’re a bit muffled, but it’s a creative idea.

Tosca’s famous aria “Vissi d’arte” needed a little more space before and after. You need few moments to ready yourself for it, just as Tosca needs a few moments to gather her panicked thoughts.

Mostly, though, the pace was spot on. Puccini propels the opera forward with repeated motifs, ratcheting up the tension with notes like heartbeats. Director Marc Verzatt builds on that. Little touches – Scarpia’s goons pacing in the distance, a pair of nuns rustling past – play up the music’s rhythms.

You can’t look away, not even in the second act when you sort of want to, when Mario is being tortured offstage and Scarpia, grinning, tells Tosca exactly what they are doing to him. It gets sort of sickening – and still, you’re glued.

It would have been nice to see a more sumptuous set in that scene. Scarpia’s quarters should be lush and seductive, as evil often is, and I think with a few more candles and furnishings it could have been done without too much money. Still, what was there counted for a lot. I kept looking at the crucifix on the wall. How timely this drama is, with Pope Francis speaking up so recently against the Mafia. You can almost see “Tosca” as a mob drama, with its villain who believes, in a twisted way, that his actions are somehow justified in the eyes of God.

Nickel City Opera performs “Tosca” at the Riviera Theatre, 67 Webster St., North Tonawanda, at 8 tonight and 2:30 p.m. Sunday.

email: mkunz@buffnews.com