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Laura Seitz, Deseret Morning News
Scott Piper as Cavaradossi and Cynthia Clayton as Tosca in "Tosca."

Giacomo Puccini's "Tosca" has been a mainstay in Utah Opera's repertoire. It was the second opera produced by the fledging company back in 1978, and it's reappeared onstage at the Capitol Theatre several times since.

It's also the work with which Utah Opera will ring in the new year. "Tosca" returns to the Capitol Theatre next weekend, marking the fifth time the company has staged Puccini's venerable crowd pleaser. It will be sung in Italian with English Supertitles.

"Tosca" has never lost its appeal for operagoers. It's been an audience favorite right from its 1900 premiere in Rome. It's easy to understand why. The story has all the elements of good opera — love, jealousy, betrayal, lust and revenge.

The plot is rather straightforward and loosely based on fact. The story takes place in 1800 in Rome, where Tosca is one of the most celebrated opera singers of her day. She and the young painter Cavaradossi are in love, but their love is frequently marred by Tosca's jealousy.

And it's not just Cavaradossi who finds the volatile diva irresistible. Baron Scarpia, who runs Rome with an iron fist, is also drawn to her. He wants her, and he does whatever he can to force her to go to bed with him.

Scarpia has Cavaradossi arrested and brought to his villa, where he is tortured. Scarpia summons Tosca, and when she hears Cavaradossi's cries of pain, she finally relents and agrees to give herself to the baron on condition that Cavaradossi is released. Scarpia agrees. But Tosca spots a knife on Scarpia's desk and just as he's gloating over his triumph and Tosca's humiliation, she kills him with the knife.

But even after death, Scarpia gets his revenge on Tosca and Cavaradossi. Instead of going through a mock execution as Scarpia had promised Tosca, Cavaradossi is actually shot and killed by a firing squad. Tosca discovers the deception as Scarpia's body is found. Before soldiers can capture her, Tosca flings herself off a parapet to her death.

A story such as this, in the hands of a lesser composer, would be an exercise in melodrama. But Puccini turns it into something grander and more noble. It becomes a story of humankind, of good versus evil.

"It's a fascinating work," said Joseph Rescigno, the conductor for this production. But you have to have a specific concept for "Tosca" to make it work, he added. "You can't be wishy-washy about it."

"Tosca" is filled with passion and you need to bring that out, said stage director Stephanie Sundine. "You have to look for the fire in it. I want the audience to identify with the characters, even with a villain like Scarpia. I want people to see him and everyone else as being a part of real life."

Both Rescigno and Sundine, whose last time at Utah Opera was with Verdi's "Aida" in 2004, know "Tosca" as well as anyone. Rescigno has conducted it on many occasions over the past quarter century with different opera companies. And Sundine, who was an opera singer before becoming a director, had sung the title character frequently during her career.

That makes soprano Cynthia Clayton, whose last Utah Opera appearance was in "Jenufa" in 2005, feel more confident about tackling the title role.

This will be Clayton's debut as Tosca. Taking on a new role can be daunting at best for any singer, but Clayton feels comfortable doing it now, and especially with Rescigno and Sundine in charge. "(Rescigno) knows it so well, and Stephanie has done it so many times as a singer," she said. "I can mine them for what they've brought to it."

Clayton was offered the role years ago, she said, but at that time she didn't feel she was ready for it, vocally and emotionally. But at this stage in her career, she's looking forward to it, even though Tosca is a challenging character to portray.

"Tosca is a force to be reckoned with," Clayton said. "She is normally in charge of things, but with Scarpia she doesn't know what she's dealing with. She doesn't understand politics."

For baritone Guido LeBron, who sings Scarpia, Puccini takes up a large part of his repertoire. He recently finished a run of "Il Tabarro," and the last time operagoers saw him in Salt Lake City was as Jack Rance in "La Fanciulla del West."

"Puccini was such a theater guy," LeBron said. "The way the music and the words complement each other is so modern."

LeBron relishes taking on one of the most evil characters in opera. "It's an amazing role," he said. "Even sopranos fantasize about singing it."

This will be LeBron's fifth production of "Tosca" and he has yet to tire of it. "(Scarpia) shows a side of ourselves that we all have." But unlike most people, Scarpia acts on his dark impulses. "Fortunately, most of us choose to live a law-abiding life. But some, like Scarpia, choose murder."

What makes LeBron's portrayal so menacing is that he presents the contradiction in Scarpia's character. "He is sadistic and evil, but he fancies himself an elegant guy. When I play him, I give him that elegance. That makes him more repulsive."

Scarpia is also a hypocrite, LeBron said. "He is a fanatical Christian, who spends half his life praying. He kills and tortures people, but he thinks he's doing what God wants him to do. That makes him so dangerous."

Cavaradossi is Scarpia's antithesis. Tenor Scott Piper, in his Utah Opera debut, sings the role. Piper has some definite ideas on who Cavaradossi is. "We see two sides of him. We see his tenderness as it's expressed in his love for Tosca. And we also see him as a young idealist, who doesn't run away from his beliefs. He is someone who is ready to stand up for them.

"It's rare to find characters in opera who are like this. Normally, they are either one or the other. That's why it's so gratifying doing Cavaradossi."

If you go

What: "Tosca"

Where: Capitol Theatre

When: Saturday, Jan. 21, 23, 25, 7:30 p.m.; Jan. 27, 2 p.m.

How much: $10-$65

Phone: 355-2787 or 888-451-2787

Web: utahsymphonyopera.org or www.arttix.org

Also: Opera Preview Lecture by Lynn Jemison-Keisker, director of opera theater at Utah State University, Wednesday, 7:30 p.m., Salt Lake City Library Auditorium, free

E-mail: [email protected]