Italian grand opera isn't known for happy endings. Death is as important a character as the opera's star singers, often stalking one or more of them until he coaxes from their lips their last sweet, tragic song. It's all part of the fun.
When I find myself regretting the demise of a truly odious character -- as I did in the case of the Baron Scarpia in the West Bay Opera production of Tosca now being staged at the Lucie Stern Theatre -- I know something extraordinary is taking place. Composer Giacomo Puccini kills off his villain at the end of Act II in this magnificent three-act opera, but so extraordinary is the voice and stage presence of Philip Skinner in the role of Scarpia, Rome's evil chief of police, that I feared Act III could only be a let-down.
My fears were groundless, because Mr. Skinner is only one in a cast of stand-out lead performers. Stacey Stofferahn as Floria Tosca, a celebrated singer, and David Gustafson as her lover, the artist Mario Cavaradossi, carry Act III to a rousing conclusion, with Mr. Gustafson delivering a glittering E lucevan le stelle, and the duo enthralling the audience with Ah! Franchigia a Floria Tosca and O dolci mani -- a captivating display of sweet passion preceding their own demise. Death, the silent cast member, doesn't rest in this spectacle of passion, deceit and fury.
Although Ms. Stofferahn seemed a bit unsteady in certain vocal registers on opening night, her singing in general is richly colored and powerful, and her Tosca throbs with vitality. Mr. Gustafson and Mr. Skinner electrify with their performances of two men circling the beautiful Tosca, one simmering with love, the other, lust.
In minor roles, Carl King as Sagrestano offers the perfect comic touch to the first scene without tipping into the buffoonery that some singers bring to the role. William O'Neill as the fugitive Angelotti, Nadav J. Hart as Spoletta, and Mathew Pierce as Sciarrone add solid singing and acting.
West Bay has typically attracted talented singers to its chorus, and this production is no exception. Following a scene in the Church of Sant'Andrea della Valle in which Scarpia deceives -- and blatantly lusts for -- Floria Tosca, the chorus joins the malevolent police chief in a luscious Te Deum to end Act I. With Tosca and her desired conquest still on his mind, Scarpia remembers only late in the hymn that he's in a church, and sings in rich bass-baritone sleaziness, "Tosca, you make me forget God!"
The current production of this verismo masterpiece, which premiered in Rome in 1900, is West Bay Opera's sixth. In addition to treating the ears, this production features fine acting befitting the high-octane theatricality of the story, based on a work by French playwright Victorien Sardou.
The team leading this dynamic production is made up of West Bay Opera's general director Jose Luis Moscovich, who conducts the orchestra, and stage director Richard Harrell. The opera is sung in Italian, with English supertitles.
Jean-Francois Revon is responsible for the splendid set. And in an innovation for the opera company, Mr. Revon co-designed, with Frederic O. Boulay, set-enhancing video-projected images.
West Bay, based in Palo Alto, proves over and over again that you don't have to go to San Francisco to see superbly staged opera. To opera lovers -- and those who are curious about this enchanting art form -- Tosca calls.
Tosca will be performed at 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 19; and 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 20, at Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road in Palo Alto. Tickets: $40-$75. Call 424-9999, or go to West Bay Opera's website.