If the great Austro-American film director and actor Erich von Stroheim famously became known as the man you love to hate, Puccini’s Tosca, opening the Santa Fe Opera’s 56th season last Friday, may be the opera you hate to love. It’s tawdry; it’s brutal; it’s cliché-ridden. And it’s, damnit, drop-dead effective in the theater, given the right cast and the right staging.

A tidy little item, Tosca has an atypical-for-opera virtue (pedantry alert) of obeying the three Aristotelian unities: of place—everything happens in Rome; of time—everything happens within 24 hours; of action—terrible things happen to revolutionaries. Puccini’s cast centers on just three characters, themselves a randy triangle of love and lechery. With such a tight-fisted focus on dramatic action and characterization, there’s no place to hide in this show.

The first challenge: get yourself a Tosca. On this score the SFO has a winner, the South African soprano Amanda Echalaz, making her American debut in the title role. She's glamorous and knows her way around the stage, and then there's the voice. Hers is, simply, a many-splendored thing, with a smoky lower register, a golden-toned middle and clear, confident top notes. In one of the role's many deal-breakers, her first aria's treacherous phrase, "le voci delle cose," Echalaz just nailed it. The "Vissi d'arte" was a marvel of abandonment and grief.

Her Cavaradossi? More like a work in progress. Brian Jagde assumed the role here for the first time on short notice; he sings it with Patricia Racette in San Francisco later this year. Perhaps a product of opening-night nerves, his "Recondita armonia" fared badly—tight and loud. By "E lucevan le stelle" the voice had loosened up, and Jagde provided pleasant warmth and subtlety to the well-known aria.

Raymond Aceto's Scarpia deployed his burly, well-produced bass to good effect, moving easily from feline insinuation to ferocious declamation. I'd prefer more menace and less muscle throughout, though, particularly in the Act II seduction where the evil baron wins Tosca's silent surrender while pinning her down in the missionary position.

But that's just one problem with Stephen Barlow's stage direction, a largely fallible commodity. Among several conceptual absurdities, the first act takes place—capering choirboys and white-faced clergy alike—on top of Cavaradossi's incomplete painting of the Magdalene, serving here as the stage floor. So much for ecclesiastical iconography.

Second, Tosca doesn't use the conventional fruit knife to do Scarpia in. I won't reveal the MacGuffin here, but I didn't buy it. In the long, scary interlude concluding the second act, Tosca's complicated pantomime involves, yes, lugging the guts off-stage. And the admittedly hard-to-stage prologue to the last act? We're still stuck in Scarpia's apartment—no Rome, no dawn, no shepherd.

I guess that Yannis Thavoris' woozy, semi-expressionist sets are meant to suggest a Rome gone awry, from a topsy-turvy dome of Sant'Andrea della Valle to the crumbling Carracci fresco in the Palazzo Farnese, to dizzy imaginary domes outside Castel Sant'Angelo. Thavoris' costumes for Tosca lack propriety as well, ranging from the virginal (Act I) to the ratty (Act III).

Still. Apart from Echalaz, the bright shining star of this uneven production, what makes it vaut le voyage (worth a trip) as the Michelin Guide puts it, is the SFO's chief conductor, Frédéric Chaslin, who most definitely rules the roost. Nuance, drama, engagement, energy—my word-hoard runneth over. The SFO orchestra in its season opener never sounded better, with crisp brass, subtle woodwinds, silken strings and big off-stage booms. The greatest of music critics, GB Shaw, praised Puccini for, in brief, his "genuine symphonic modification" to opera. With Chaslin in charge, we heard it.