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Opera lovers and novices alike, rejoice — "Tosca" is in town. Not only do most die-hard opera fans seem to have a soft spot for the taut musical thriller, it's arguably the perfect introduction for friends who aren't yet converted to the genre. (Just give those friends a heads-up about the torture, sexual assault and homicide they'll see and hear onstage.) Utah Opera opened a fine production of Puccini's classic melodrama on Saturday.

Soprano Kara Shay Thomson is a natural as the diva Floria Tosca. Her voice possesses thrilling power, and she has the dramatic skill to make this insecure, impetuous and ultimately intrepid heroine believable and sympathetic.

The fact that Thomson's Tosca holds her own with the savage police chief, Baron Scarpia — one of the most vivid villains ever to grace the opera stage — is no small feat, especially when Scarpia is played by as strong a singing actor as baritone Michael Chioldi. His performance on Saturday was a tour de force, so expertly shaded that listeners could hear as well as see the charm, the casual cruelty and the terrifying outbursts of brutality. Director Kathleen Clawson staged the violent Act II encounter between Tosca and Scarpia with squirm-inducing realism.

Tenor Dinyar Vania, who played Tosca's highly principled boyfriend, Mario Cavaradossi, seemed off his game on Saturday; his voice had ample heft, but the vowels sounded constricted, especially on the higher notes. He was at his best in the last act, singing Cavaradossi's heart-tugging farewell to life.

Robert Tweten, a Utah Opera favorite, conducts the Utah Symphony in this production. Whether conveying suspense, heartbreak or passion, the orchestra played vividly and clearly on Saturday, and the numerous offstage effects were executed with precision. The Utah Opera Chorus and 16 boys from the Madeleine Choir School, likewise, brought professionalism and color to their roles; Madeleine Choir School music director Melanie Malinka was chorus master. The supporting roles of Angelotti, the Sacristan, the henchmen Sciarrone and Spoletta, and the Jailer were filled capably by Kevin Nakatani, Michael Wanko, Tyler Oliphant, James Miller and Markel Reed.

Susan Memmott Allred's luxurious new costume designs beautifully complement the scenery, which consists mainly of stunningly realistic drops painted by the late Italian master Ercole Sormani. —

When in Rome

Utah Opera presents Puccini's "Tosca."

When • Reviewed Saturday, Oct. 10; continues Monday, Wednesday and Friday, Oct. 12, 14 and 16, at 7:30 p.m., with a 2 p.m. matinee Sunday, Oct. 18

Where • Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City

Running time • About 2 ½ hours, including two intermissions

Tickets • $18-$89; utahopera.org

In a nutshell • Baron Scarpia, corrupt chief of police in 1800 Rome, makes trouble for famous diva Floria Tosca and her boyfriend, painter-turned-activist Mario Cavaradossi.

Learn more • Principal coach Carol Anderson will give a lecture an hour before curtain, and artistic director Christopher McBeth will lead a Q&A after each performance; these events are in the new Capitol Room on the theater's west side.

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