It’s hard to go wrong with Puccini’s Tosca. Even if every aspect is a disaster – set, singing, orchestra – the passion-packed story will still draw cries from an audience. Houston Grand Opera’s season-opening production of the fiery opera does it right, from lighting to set to singing, and the end result is a stunning beginning to its season.

Alexey Dolgov (Cavaradossi) and Liudmyla Monastyrska (Tosca) © Lynn Lane
Alexey Dolgov (Cavaradossi) and Liudmyla Monastyrska (Tosca)
© Lynn Lane

The opera premiered in Rome’s Teatro Costanzi in January, 1900. Giuseppe Giacosa, Puccini’s librettist, had initially expressed some hesitation about Tosca, complaining that the weighty plot would crowd out the lyrical aspect. Naturally, his worries were unfounded. Today Tosca is one of the more widely performed operas in the world. And in this co-production between HGO and Lyric opera of Chicago, the plot only enhances the lyrical in a refreshingly ideal style.

To begin, every great Tosca needs a fantastically impassioned Floria Tosca to jealously pace the stage, throw her hands to her head in despair, and commit murder before God in the name of love. Ukrainian soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska sings with the fervency of a woman who lives for the moment knowing she might die at any time. Formidable and deep, her voice has astounding breadth to it, so much so that even Monastyrska struggled to control it at times. In Tosca’s famed “Vissi d’arte” in Act II, she suffered from a few pitch problems, wavering both flat and sharp, and her voice couldn’t quite maintain a soft dynamic, but it was so emotionally-wrought these issues seemed like fringe technicalities that no one listening would hold it against her.

Liudmyla Monastyrska (Tosca) © Lynn Lane
Liudmyla Monastyrska (Tosca)
© Lynn Lane

From his opening aria in the role of Tosca’s lover Cavaradossi, tenor Alexey Dolgov anticipated Monastyrska’s massive voice as though he had already lost a balance battle. A sweet sonority rang from each note Dolgov sang, but he sounded as though he were pushing and straining his voice to project something larger. His voice was no match for Monastyrska’s in the first two acts, but by the third, they seemed to have reached a compromise. Bass Dmitry Belosselskiy, in the small role of Angelotti, on the other hand would have made a much better match. Angelotti doesn’t have many singing moments, but Belosselskiy’s majestic voice, round and canyon-deep, left me wishing to hear much more.

Andrzej Dobber (Scarpia) © Lynn Lane
Andrzej Dobber (Scarpia)
© Lynn Lane
The surprise vocal hero of the night was the villainous Baron Scarpia, sung by Polish baritone Andrzej Dobber in his HGO debut. Scowling and snarling, he looked like the devil but sang like a saint. It was almost sad to see him die, knowing we wouldn’t hear his clean and precise voice soar anymore that evening.

Visually, each act found the aesthetic sweet spot. High grey walls with moonlit windows hosted the changed interiors of each act: the first, a rustic wooden church with Cavaradossi’s scaffolding soaring stage right; the second, a matrix of crates topped like cakes with ivory statues; the third, a stark setting of five nooses hanging from the ceiling and a square window of sky waiting forebodingly for Tosca. At the beginning of Act III, men hoisted a body in the middle noose, so that Tosca and Cavaradossi had death literally suspended above them for the remainder.

While set and costume designer Bunny Christie no doubt deserves accolades for this design perfection, lighting designer Duane Schuler garners notable praise here. Pieces of the set from saint figurines to the crucifix as well as the singers themselves were lit, at times, with the purest blue moonlight. The timing had a breathtaking effect that put this production over the top. Director John Caird showed an intimate understanding of the history of Tosca, capturing the original air of heartbreak and treachery in the movement and blocking.

Conductor and HGO artistic director Patrick Summers has always been reliable, but Friday’s orchestral performance shivered with a new excitement. The strings, especially the exposed cello solos, evoked a raw feeling, and the horns were the most full and in tune I’ve heard in a long while. At the end of the first act, when the chorus lines up in unison, Summers actually leapt into the air to cast a downbeat – an act of impulsive passion that is rare from the director.

For such a violent opera, it is tremendously beautiful. It’s a little odd that a largely Eastern-European cast is singing this Italian opera, while the Russian Eugene Onegin runs concurrently with a largely American cast (opening next week), but there’s an undeniable magic to this production. Yes, we’ve seen Tosca plenty of times before, and we will see many more, but it’s encouraging to see a version that stays so close to its Roman roots while projecting such a timeless energy.