For months the Piccola Lirica company has been staging “Tosca” here, as its slogan says, “in miniatura.” The other night I stopped by to see it. It lasted about as long as some Italian governments: in just 90 minutes Scarpia was dead, Tosca had hurled herself off the parapet…

In America one of the few bright spots for classical music now is said to be opera, with younger crowds attracted by trendy marketing and new works often dealing with topical issues. But it’s another story in the country of Verdi and Puccini, where, like Mimi, opera has been dying forever. When the soprano Cecilia Bartoli recently told a German newspaper that “opera in Italy is a museum with dusty exhibits,” she echoed the composer Luciano Berio, who in exasperation a dozen years ago called Italian opera administrators “cretins” and said half the Italian opera houses should be closed because production standards had fallen so low…

Enter Piccola Lirica, which advertises itself as youth-friendly, meaning it hires fresh-faced singers and shrinks grand operas like “Tosca” from “Godfather” to “Pinocchio” length. It’s the CliffsNotes version of Puccini, fondly abridged.

“When opera was born, there was no cinema, no TV, no fast food,” said Rossana Siclari, the company’s director, a thin, wide-eyed, 40-something Calabrian. We talked before the performance over proseccos at one of the tables in the theater’s lovely little whitewashed cafe, which doubles as the lobby.

“Our society wants everything quickly,” she said. “Everything changes in the world.”

Gianna Volpi, who condensed “Tosca,” stopped by. She supplied brief narrative links to make up for cuts, and even added a happy ending: the dead lovers reappear for a postmortem smooch. “We’re giving the audience more, not less,” Ms. Volpi said.

That’s a matter of opinion.

But with 200 performances scheduled for this year alone, her “Tosca” may become the most often performed opera production ever in Italy, albeit without a costly cast and orchestra in a theater seating thousands. Piccola Lirica employs five singers; the theater, Teatro Flaiano, where Anna Magnani, Monica Vitti and Aldo Fabrizi once performed, seats just 170.

Toscanini lamented three-quarters of a century ago that the advanced age of patrons for his NBC Symphony spelled imminent doom for classical music. But “the opera audience constantly renews itself, just at an older age,” Mr. Vergnano said about the current demographics of the Italian scene.

He has a point about the serious music audience generally. Then he added, “I’m always surprised in these days of the Internet, television and special effects to see that people are still moved to tears at an opera, just as they were 150 years ago.”

Which is the real issue. Stripped of spectacle, Piccola Lirica’s “Tosca” proved that immediacy and a little genuine pathos can suffice for a casual evening at the theater. Never mind that the orchestra was a quartet of eager young electronic keyboard players making sounds that seemed to emanate from tin cans and string — or that there hasn’t actually been an opera company of distinction in Rome for years.

From the Castel Sant’Angelo, where the opera’s last act takes place, to the ancient neighborhood around the Teatro Flaiano, mobbed in the autumn evening with tourists and Romans doing what they always do, dodging traffic, looking at one another and the city, it briefly seemed as if not much had actually changed since Puccini’s day, that opera was still in the bloodstream here. Clearly Italian opera is like Rome, which is always said to be over the hill but remains indispensable.

It survives every attempt to save it.

Michael Kimmelman
New York Times