From the moment the curtain rose on a sumptuous basilica backdrop, it was clear Opera Naples had determined to banish one aspect of its audience's review.
There would be no question the company belongs on this stage.
In fact, the vigilant viewer needed a continual mental pinch to even revisit the question. With the attention to quality and execution throughout this "Tosca" as their standard, Opera Naples and the Philharmonic Center for the Arts are a perfect fit.
Elizabeth Blancke-Biggs was clearly the star, a Tosca infused with unwavering righteousness, open-throttle emotions and deep faith. Her lyric voice penetrated every niche of Hayes Hall, with vocals so true in tone and delivery there was an audible clearing of throats as the orchestra introduced her famous "Vissi d'arte" ("I lived for art"). People were getting ready to fight back tears.
Andrea Zese is her vocal equal as the lustful tyrant Scarpia, who means to have his way with her. But Zese's relaxed physical sense of his character never matches his commanding baritone. We would have grafted his voice onto Todd Thomas, the wonderfully malevolent Scarpia of Opera Naples "Tosca" debut six years ago.
The biggest disappointment came at the moment of his most telling line: "Tosca, you make me forget God!" insists on more passion that Zese gave it Thursday.
Dinyar Vania, as Cavaradossi, had a bit of a problem coming in for a landing on his opening arias on Thursday at the Phil. But he more than atoned later, with marathon tenor tenacity and a despairing Act III "E lucevan le stelle" ("And the Stars Shone") that was a model of pain.
Extra finger snaps go to David Cangelosi as Spoletta, nervous and gimlet-eyed as Scarpia's strongman. The crystal soprano of a Naples youngster, Luciano Marsalli, on the shepherd's song, was a sweet irony to open the final act.
"Tosca" trades laurels with "La Boheme" every other year as most performed, and every stage director tinkers with it. Garnett Bruce has brought a sense of timing to tiny moments, such as the sacristan's attempt to swig Cavaradossi's wine just as the bells for the Angelus prayer chime.
Bruce also knows how to stage a second coming, as seen in the solemn "Te Deum" of Act I. It's buttressed by the solid Opera Naples Chorus (kudos to director Robin Shuford Frank) and visually stunning with a wave of red, white and gold clergy finery.
Bruce's choice of English translation for the opera libretto is sometimes distracting, lurching between the formal structure of its arias and contemporary casual lines such as "You'll get me killed!" And Tosca-watchers with an Italian score know her final defiant cry is "Scarpia, (we meet) before God!" "Scarpia, God will judge!" simply does not evoke the same specter of an OK Corral at the Pearly Gates.
Paul Nadler's direction of the Naples Philharmonic Orchestra was a powerful lesson in what difference the conductor makes. Always strong behind opera, this orchestra showed new dimensions in voicing and balance Thursday because of Nadler's careful work with every phrase.
The inspired sets and principals' costumes, rented from Seattle Opera, anoint Artistic Director Steffanie Pearce as a shopper par excellence. There were a few gasps at the golden depths of its Gothic church, layered cleverly via staggered backdrops.
Lighting designer Kendall Smith made the most of it, moving lighting naturally from character to character without a hint of "Yow, there's a spotlight" in the mix.
Visually stunning, emotionally wrenching and musically gorgeous, this "Tosca" production is one for those who have never seen an opera. It's even outstanding for those don't want to ever see an opera.
Oh, and was there a question somewhere about them belonging on this stage? We can't remember. …