At the heart of Verdi’s Il Trovatore is one of the most insanely conflicted women in all of opera, the Gypsy sorceress Azucena. After mistakenly tossing her own baby into her mother’s funeral pyre, she kidnaps the son of the man who condemned her mother to the stake, nurtures and cherishes the babe that she has renamed Manrico into adulthood, and brings him back from the brink of death through her medicinal arts when he falls in battle. Yet when Manrico’s brother, the Count di Luna, sends her adopted son off to be executed, Azucena triumphantly exults! Paired with the erratic Azucena is surely Verdi’s dopiest title character. From cradle to grave, Manrico never discovers that his true name is Garcia. Even when Azucena narrates the story of how she – oops! – tossed her own baby into the fire and kidnapped the intended barbecue, Manrico can’t get to the truth that he is the previous Count di Luna’s son. When Azucena backtracks and declares that Manrico is hers, the mighty troubadour fails to ask whatever happened to that kidnapped nobleman. Or his own father.

So neither of these 15th Century Spaniards has the firmest grip on reality, but my, Verdi gives them gorgeous melodies to sing. Opera Carolina’s latest edition of this perennial audience favorite features mezzo superstar Denyce Graves as Azucena and tenor Antonello Palombi as Manrico. Graves wasn’t in top form on opening night at Belk Theater, but the heat of her seething vengeful passion brought a thrill to every scene she was in, beginning at the Gypsy camp with her “Stride la vampa” between doses of the famed “Anvil Chorus.” Palombi might be exactly what  Verdi had in mind, for his pitch-perfect singing drips with fervid emotion while his acting plods on in the style of a bygone century, liberally studded with hackneyed poses. This Dudley Do-Right form of heroism would probably work better if baritone Michael Corvino delivered a more melodramatic lustiness to the Count di Luna, but he wasn’t at his best either, producing a forcefulness that only flickered with his top form.

With full husky low notes and a shimmering treble, soprano Lisa Daltirus is Leonora, the romantic center of the action, beloved by both the brothers. Like Palombi, her charisma quotient might be boosted by an acting lesson or three. This becomes most painfully apparent in the opening of Act 4, when Leonora arrives after nightfall at the Count’s palace to plead for the imprisoned Manrico’s life (alack, she’ll also never know the nobleman’s real name). Stage director Jay Lesenger strands her onstage darkling all alone for what seems like an eternity as Palombi and the Opera Carolina Chorus accompany her singing offstage. Pacing back and forth is for ordinary folk, not great opera divas. Nor does it help that the setting is about the fifth variation of the same basic uncredited Leggo scenic design, with a modicum of atmosphere added by lighting designer Michael Baumgarten and projections by John Boeshe.

Baumgarten’s lighting is far more effective when we behold another corner of the castle in the portentous opening scene as Ferrando, the captain of the guard, recounts the official court version of the Count’s origins and Garcia’s enigmatic fate. But again, the paltry scenic design budget is overstretched when Leonora emerges for the first time for it looks like she’s emerging from the Count’s quarters – and his possession – to respond to the far-off serenading of her mysterious troubadour when, in fact, both of the brothers have been sighing at her window. A scene change could have clarified the situation, but baritone Kristopher Irmiter’s fine work as Ferrando helps us off to an eerie start. Yet poor Daltirus has her dignity further compromised by soprano Jessie Wright-Martin as Inez, Leonora’s lady-in-waiting. Either Wright-Martin was suffering severely from opening night jitters, or she doesn’t belong on the same stage. Luckily, we don’t hear much from her amid the lyric outpourings of this classy cast.

There are additional performances of Il Trovatore on October 20 and 23.  See our sidebar for details.