Portland Opera at Keller Auditorium, 222 SW Clay, 790-2787, Thurs & Sat, Nov 10 & 12, 7:30 pm, $42.77-155.75

The Portland Opera christened its promising 2005-'06 season auspiciously this week, busting out a splendid rendition of Puccini's Tosca. I've already seen Tosca twice, once in Rome and once in Kiev. Though the Keller Auditorium doesn't match the venues in those cities, Portland's staging of Tosca was just as impressive.

The opera opens in the Attavanti Chapel, where the painter Cavaradossi (Yu Qiang Dai) harbors his friend Angelotti (Aaron Theno), a political prisoner on the lam. We soon meet Cavaradossi's lover Tosca (Cynthia Lawrence), and Scarpia (Greer Grimsley), a corrupt police chief in search of Angelotti. Shortly, Scarpia apprehends Cavaradossi for "questioning" (read: torture) and plots to bend Tosca to his will, having fallen in love with her.

I've never thought much of Tosca's story, but, as the music and the vocals are paramount, opera sometimes skimps on plot. Assuredly, Tosca holds sufficient melodrama complete with tragic ending.

As for the cast, there were no slackers here, with the phenomenal orchestra leading the charge. Tosca is musically tricky, requiring a sizeable ensemble with a motley percussion crew. The musicians' undertaking was thankless but splendidly done, my only complaint being the lack of an overture. Without one, there was no chance to hear the symphony uninhibited by vocals.

The sets were striking, from the intricately contoured chapel in the first act down to the painted parapets of the Castel Sant'Angelo in the third. This final scene may at first seem inferior, given that it's a painted curtain rather than a solid set. But when realizing how stunning the "sunrise" appears through this shade, the designers' rationale becomes apparent.

I generally prefer to watch film or theater when I'm in an auditorium, but opera's got a few things going for it. Since it's only in town a handful of weeks a year, it's a rarity. And while I see awful films and plays quite regularly, I've never seen a poorly done opera. Oh, and the bar at the Keller takes orders ahead of time, so that, come intermission, your vodka-cranberry is waiting for you.