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You know you’re hearing an unusual “Tosca” when the villain almost walks away with the show.

So powerfully evil is the Scarpia of bass-baritone Greer Grimsley that there was a wave of audience applause on opening night when he met his death — a first in this longtime operagoer’s experience. (And, reportedly, in Grimsley’s experience, too.) Grimsley, who has made his biggest mark at Seattle Opera as the considerably more heroic Wotan in the “Ring,” has lifted the level of villainous finesse of his Scarpia to a new art form. The visceral impact of the first-act “Te Deum” finale was succeeded by the appalling tension of Scarpia’s stalking Tosca in the pivotal second act, creating a drama of unusual potency.

Fortunately, the two opening-cast leads — soprano Ausrine Stundyte in the title role, and tenor Stefano Secco as the heroic Cavaradossi — were strong enough singing actors to provide the required balance. Their scenes together had a believable warmth and authenticity; these were fully thought-out portrayals. They put a remarkably individual stamp on their most famous arias: Stundyte began “Vissi d’arte” as the merest breath, gradually adding intensity, and Secco held onto the high A in “E lucevan le stelle” as if going for the longest-note record. Both of them have distinctive timbres and big voices that are also capable of considerable subtlety.

All this action played out against the beautiful painterly sets from Italy’s Ercole Sormani, with detailed and realistic stage direction by Jose Maria Condemi. With the exception of a few opening-night minor bloopers, the orchestra played remarkably well for conductor Julian Kovatchev, whose support of the singers and pacing of the entire show were both admirable. (Three cheers for the cello section, in particular.)

The supporting roles were well taken, from Aubrey Allicock’s desperate Angelotti to the broadly comic Sacristan of Peter Strummer, the cynical Spoletta of Alasdair Elliott, and Barry Johnson’s Sciarrone. The Shepherd Boy was Matthew Bratton (alternating on Sunday and Feb. 23 with Max Laycock).

Condemi’s staging and John Keene’s chorus combined for maximum impact in the “Te Deum” scene at the end of Act I, and the audience buzz at the first intermission was positively electric.

So exciting was the Saturday-night “Tosca” that even some ardent football fans forgot (at least temporarily) the tension of the ongoing Seahawks playoff game — favorably resolved before the opera’s last act. You’d have to call this opera production a definite touchdown.

On Sunday, three new principals took over the leading roles: soprano Mary Elizabeth Williams as Tosca, and Adam Diegel and Philip Horst as the tenor and baritone who desire her. The voice of Williams, a former Seattle Opera Young Artist and an unforgettable Serena in “Porgy and Bess,” has grown in size and amplitude, and her acting skills have grown to match it. Her second-act confrontation with Scarpia (the suavely menacing Horst) was riveting in all its nuances. Diegel, as Cavaradossi, moved from a somewhat tentative beginning to a memorable performance in the subsequent acts.

This show is an excellent point of entry into the world of opera for those who aren’t sure whether this art form is for them. “Tosca” has just about everything: great tunes, desperate lovers, loads of action, and a bad guy you’re going to love to hate.

Melinda Bargreen also reviews concerts for 98.1 Classical KING FM. She can be reached at mbargreen@aol.com