TAMPA At the end of "Tosca," Giacomo Puccini's ruthless melodrama, the audience is splattered with blood: a suicide, stabbing, attempted rape, torture, execution, and fall from a parapet.
With nobody left to sing, the curtain comes down and the crowd goes wild, ensuring Puccini's reputation as opera's most celebrated sadist. The carnage in "Tosca" is, of course, its appeal. But where else do people perish against such great music?
That dramatic bite comes to life in this weekend's new production by Opera Tampa, an imperfect but tightly wound effort fueled by enough impassioned moments to engage even the most casual opera-goer.
Friday night's performance at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center improved markedly over the company's first "Tosca" in 1999 and pulled off a minor miracle by replacing the soprano in the title role. Where the production lacks an electric arc over all three acts, it compensates with focused, feeling characters who turn cavernous Morsani Hall into an intimate theater space.
"Tosca" is Puccini's most concentrated opera - the action takes place in one day - but its pivotal arias are too short to be effective within the overall dramatic scheme. The principals have a tough assignment: They must carefully pace their vocal energy, blend high drama with lyrical reflection, be convincing actors and work without the cushion of big ensembles.
Rosa D'Imperio, who replaced soprano Patricia Stevens, brings a dynamic and confident flair to her role as Floria Tosca. She showed moments of comic wit in Act I, offered an elegantly shaded showstopper in "Vissi d'arte" ("I live for art") and injected plenty of emotion into her battles with the evil Scarpia. After losing her lover Cavaradossi to a firing squad, she leaps to her death with aplomb.
The production's highlight may well be tenor Gustavo Lopez-Manzitti as Cavaradossi, whose lovely aria "Recondita armonia" ("strange harmony of contrasts") and more convincingly, "E lucevan le stelle" ("the stars shine brightly"), nearly brought 1,900 people to their feet.
Guido LeBron plays a downright nasty Scarpia. His baritone voice is particularly sharp and vicious at the right moments. And he molds his character into a loathsome creature who deserves a good steak knife in the gut. LeBron struts about the stage, dressed in black and sneering at everyone as the orchestra's stark chords underline his lecherousness.
A compelling moment comes early in the action, when LeBron renounces religious faith against the "holy" background of a church service. The director Francis Ford Coppola employed this technique in the "baptism and murder" montage in "The Godfather."
Coincidentally, the famous director's uncle, Anton Coppola, leads the Opera Tampa Orchestra and Chorus with an assured hand, as he has with most all the company's productions over the last decade.
"Tosca" is sung in Italian with English subtitles projected above the stage.
A final performance is Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, 1010 N. MacInnes Place, Tampa; (813) 229-7827.