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BLO opens its new season with robust ‘Tosca’

Elena Stikhina made her American debut in the title role of the BLO’s production of “Tosca.”
Liza Voll Photography
Elena Stikhina made her American debut in the title role of the BLO’s production of “Tosca.”

Boston Lyric Opera opened its 41st season on Friday night with a sold-out, well-sung, and boisterously received performance of “Tosca” at the Cutler Majestic Theatre.

It was a pleasure to see — and more to the point, to hear — BLO in a theater better suited to its artistic goals. Indeed, when it comes to the unamplified voice — hearing its bloom, feeling its resonance — the acoustics of the Cutler Majestic are far superior to those of the Shubert Theatre, where almost all BLO productions used to take place.

Director Crystal Manich’s production mostly hews to tradition, notwithstanding a few details. But timeless works like this one, even when encased in traditional stagings, do not sit there passively; like gemstones they tend to catch the light of the current moment, reflect it, refract it. As TS Eliot famously wrote, the past is “altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past.”

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Even so, on some days one senses this phenomenon at work more clearly than on others. Friday’s audience watched the tragedy of Floria Tosca — a beautiful classical singer caught in a fatal web of male intrigue, male politics, and male desire — at a moment when we are consumed by press reports of Hollywood actors and producers caught in kindred webs. Indeed, even without the usual directorial clichés of opera-updating (the onstage selfies, etc.), this opera’s edge felt duly sharpened.

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In the title role on Friday was a gifted young Russian soprano named Elena Stikhina making her American debut. Signing her up was a good move by BLO. Stikhina’s voice has unusual allure, catching the ear with its combination of glow and penetration, lightness and strength, at times floating above the orchestra, at times slicing through it. On this night, the dimensionality of her stage presence — her ability to dramatically inhabit the role — was not yet commensurate with her thrilling vocalism, but she nonetheless had this opening-night crowd cheering loudly on its feet as Stikhina, visibly moved by the audience response, took her bows.

Elsewhere in the cast, Jonathan Burton was an ardent and compelling Cavaradossi, and Daniel Sutin gave a solid if somewhat circumscribed performance as Scarpia. The reliable David Cushing sang Angelotti, and James Maddalena, a master at projecting small details of character, was the Sacristan.

While the Cutler Majestic’s acoustic was a big improvement, this company’s ongoing quest for a proper performance space still continues. For this production, BLO had to retrofit the theater, a bit like overhauling an immaculately preserved antique car for a modern family road trip. The company covered the theater’s small orchestra pit, extended its stage, and constructed a second stage level on which the orchestra performed behind a scrim. Julia Noulin-Mérat’s traditional sets fluidly tied together this unusual configuration, and Paul Hackenmueller handsomely lit the fateful Act III dawn.

Generally speaking, the level of orchestral playing at BLO productions has risen dramatically in recent years. That said, Friday’s stage geometry, with its highly unconventional sightlines, seemed to complicate the coordination between the singers and orchestra. Conductor David Stern also had to contend with minor but distractingly intermittent buzzing from the theater’s sound system (in use for the cannon shots). But cumulatively, this “Tosca” very much hit its mark. It was in fact one of the most robust BLO opening nights I can recall. The new production runs through October 22.

Puccini’s “Tosca”

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Conducted by David Stern; Directed by Crystal Manich

Presented by Boston Lyric Opera

At: Cutler Majestic Theater, Friday night (runs through Oct. 22).

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.