Straightforward Tosca happily surprise-free

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      A Vancouver Opera production. At the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Saturday, April 21. Remaining performances April 26 and 28, and May 1

      With operas, as with restaurants and first dates, a couple of minutes' exposure is all one requires to know how things are going to pan out; a halting or tentative start typically sets the tone for what's to come, and recovery is rare. One of the greatest gifts a production can give an audience is a from-the-get-go sense of confidence: sit back, take it in, let us drive, you're in good hands.

      That, thankfully, is what Vancouver Opera delivers in its season-closing production of Giacomo Puccini's Tosca. It's a solid, straightforward, intelligent, and consistently well delivered piece of work–conservative, assured, and mercifully free of surprises. It's spaghetti and meatballs, from stem to stern, and there are times when that's exactly what you want.

      There's a certain expectation that the old warhorses will come to the stage in gussied-up livery–in the case of Tosca, that the action will be catapulted forward a couple of hundred years and that Jeff Koons and Cicciolina and Silvio Berlusconi will somehow be implicated. But here you get period costumes and attractive, realistic sets, as well as staging that never lapses into stasis but still allows the cast to face front and deliver.

      And throughout, there's really, really solid singing, especially from the three principals. Renzo Zulian makes his fourth appearance with Vancouver Opera, in this instance as the painter and politico Cavaradossi. His is a voice of great quality, with all the ringing top notes required of a Puccini or Verdi tenor. Baron Scarpia, a murderous, conniving lecher, is one of the true villains of opera, and Yalun Zhang, a very focused baritone, brings to the role just the right degree of snaky loathsomeness. Act 2, which is all about rape, murder, and torture, and which rests pretty much entirely on the shoulders of Scarpia and Tosca, had urgency and momentum and a heady whiff of fatalism about it. This was thanks to the musical direction of Robert Tweten and, of course, to the performance by the brightest star of the evening, the American soprano Cynthia Lawrence, in the title role: finely wrought, subtly evoked, and brilliantly sung. Her backward vault off the ramparts is a bar-raising bit of business that could do for Tosca what Debbie Brill did for the high jump. To top it off, there was excellent work throughout from the orchestra and chorus, particularly the offstage singing in Act 2.