Singers sets off fireworks

Once you get that there's a love triangle, that the two men fighting over the woman have a connection they don't know about, and that the woman who appears to be one man's mother holds that secret, the plot of Verdi's "Il Trovatore" almost doesn't matter.

It just sets up confrontations, revelations and amorous declarations that serve one purpose: turning the characters into outlets for floods of magnetically red-blooded music.

So "Trovatore" is almost all about the voices. And Opera Carolina, which opened its season with "Trovatore" on Saturday, delivers the goods.

Admittedly, the singers took different amounts of time to hit their strides Saturday night. But each of them had an angle on the music's passion and theatrics. By about halfway through, they were all fitting together - one voice's electricity complementing another one's poetry.

The No. 1 generator of electricity was tenor Antonello Palombi. His initial, behind-the-scenes serenade delivered gleaming tones and a hint of flamboyance even before he arrived onstage as Manrico, the troubadour of the opera's title. When Palombi appeared and had a straight shot at the audience, his voice resounded through the Belk Theater as few have.

In Manrico's call-to-arms aria, one of the opera's calling cards, Palombi was swaggering and fearless all the way up to the high Cs. Unlike a lot of tenors who can cut loose that way, he also knew how to turn down the heat. Palombi gave a few softer turns to Manrico's scenes with his sweetheart and with his mother. So Manrico had heart, not just a hot head.

Soprano Lisa Daltirus - as Manrico's beloved Leonore - put the musical balance the other way. Her voice was ample enough, especially at the top, to deliver some dramatic thrusts, especially as Leonore prepared to sacrifice herself to save Manrico's life. But Daltirus was most telling with gentler touches. She gave sweetness to the lovers' one, brief scene of happiness together. At the opera's climax, Daltirus' voice floated heavenward, ushering the way for Leonore.

You rarely think of a woman's voice booming, but Denyce Graves' did. Not uncommonly for singers who play Azucena, Manrico's mother - or rather, supposed mother - Graves was a little blunt with the highest notes, which are a stretch for deeper voices. Outside of that, Graves' dark, hefty tones supplied a direct link to the fatalism that possesses Azucena's soul. A gasping sotto voce captured the terror that Azucena's reminiscences strike in her. Yet Graves also summoned the warmth to reveal Azucena's love for her child.

Michael Corvino didn't quite have the power to make Count di Luna, whose unrequited love for Leonore drives much of the story, a vocal match for Manrico. But Corvino's hearty high notes got much of his message across. I suspect that Corvino had some subtlety, too, but in the main place it would've come across - the Count's adoring aria about Leonore - an overbearing clarinet in the orchestra made it almost impossible to focus on him.

As the soldier who supplies the opera's back story in the first scene, Kristopher Irmiter did some zesty storytelling. The chorus portrayed sweet-toned nuns and reasonably stout-voiced soldiers. Outside of that one episode with the clarinet, the Charlotte Symphony, led by James Meena, supported the singers discreetly when they had the spotlight, then flared up on cue to accent the histrionics.

To be honest, the staging and sets for "Trovatore" rarely get much of anyone's attention. But Jay Lesenger laid out the action clearly, and projected images designed by John Boesche established the castle and convent locales.

The most powerful visual element, though, was Graves' acting. When the terrors of Azucena's past blazed in Graves' eyes or transfixed her body, an extravagant operatic character seemed real.