Wow! Soprano Sumi Jo let fly with the most spectacularly precise and rock-solidly-supported high notes I have ever heard at the end of the first part of the “Mad Scene” in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor . Opera Carolina’s gamble in casting an international opera star paid off in spades. I call it a gamble because, in the Triangle at least, we have had more than a few big names fall short: Ben Heppner’s disastrous first Great Artists Series recital and Gary Lakes’ strained Samson for the Opera Company of North Carolina come to mind…. Rising regional talents who combine good voices with solid acting have had better track records since I have been reviewing. The May 23 audience in the NC Blumenthal Performing Arts Center’s Belk Theater rewarded Sumi Jo loudly during the pause, and she still had plenty of stunning high notes left for the remainder of the scene.

A mixed review of opening night in the Charlotte Observer gave me some trepidation, but at the last performance the “third try made it right,” despite an 11th hour change too late for an insert: a garbled public address system announced that the scheduled Edgardo, Joseph Wolverton, was indisposed and that tenor Mark Thomsen would take his place. Thomsen quickly showed that he is the real thing, not a strained fallback. His superb, evenly-supported voice easily filled the house; he had it under total control from pp to the loudest ringing forte. His near-baritone quality provided great vocal heft. He projected a wide variety of emotions, ranging from his family’s long-term strife with the Lammemoors to his ardent love for Lucia to his fury at her apparent betrayal. H even brought vocal “tears” to his death scene (without Gigli-like breaks of line). I see why this opera was originally revived for tenors.

But then there was Sumi Jo. In famous scene by the fountain, Lucia was not the mental case others have depicted. Jo sang to her maid a finely nuanced account of the ghost story, splendidly accompanied by the solo harp of Christine Van Arsdale. Her interaction with Edgardo during the crucial exchange of rings was tender and affecting. What a treat it was hear her blending in the duets with a tenor worthy of her mettle. The drama and her increasing involvement was ratcheted up during her struggle against the forced marriage wanted by her brother Enrico. With Edgardo’s condemnation of her apparent betrayal of their love, her psychological devastation was palpable. In the justly famous “Mad Scene,” Jo deployed every resource of a great diva, a broad range of body language and gestures large and small, and a wide range of perfectly controlled vocal dynamics and color. A fleeting few measures aside, she and flutist Amy Orsinger Whitehead were in perfect sync, like high-wire aerialists without a net, as they delineated a shattered mind and spirit.

Baritone Oziel Garza-Ornelas was a solid and reliable Enrico, Lucia’s politically-endangered brother. His evenly-weighted sound provided a good foil to both stellar adversaries. After a somewhat wooden appearance in the first act- he stood around a lot – bass Harold Wilson served well the role of “Aristotelian Chorus,” conveying the bloody horror of Lucia’s nuptial bed. His blocking within the scene, with its horrified wedding guests, was most effective, maximizing the dramatic effects of his revelation.

Tenor David Broadus Hamilton, a 2003-4 Resident Artist of Opera Carolina, did what he could with the role Arturo, Lucia’s hapless bridegroom. I thought he applied too much vibrato to his opening lines, leaving hardly a phrase unshaken. A sampling of recordings seems to indicate I may have been too critical. Arturo is a thankless role, however, and Hamilton was heard to better advantage as Parpignol in the company’s La Bohème .

Good performances were given by tenor Jason Karn as Normanno, Captain of the Guard at Lammermoor, and mezzo-soprano Yolando Denise Bryant, who brought vocal heft to the brief role of Lucia’s maid, Alisa. She has been a welcome addition to several regional opera productions.

We loved last fall’s Greensboro Opera production of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor . It was strongly cast and shared two things with the Opera Carolina production: an evocative set designed by Roberto Oswald and provided by the New Orleans Opera Association and appropriate costumes from Malabar Limited. The Charlotte stagehands deserve blue ribbons for rapid and smooth set-changing, despite the heavy fog, drifting about the ruins. The lighting, by Michael Baumgarten, was generally subtle; in Act II, the stormy night was perfectly suggested.

Conductor Tyrone Paterson, making his Opera Carolina debut, maintained good ensemble between the members of the Charlotte Symphony in the pit and the soloists and chorus onstage. Bel canto opera scores can seem mechanical unless given careful attention such as Paterson provided. All sections of the orchestra played well, with the violas and cellos deserving extra praise. Principal Cello Alan Black’s solo, joined by divided cellos, underpinned the pathos of Edgardo’s death scene. Throughout the opera, the horns and the trumpets employed subtle dynamics and provided beautiful sectional blending and sensitive phrasing. Mark Tysinger’s chorus was a model of clear diction and projection.

In this day of directors as ” auteurs ,” I will heap praise on any stage director who does not run counter to the composer or foist a shabby anachronism upon us. Director Stephanie Sundine might have used more imagination and split up elements of the chorus in the opening scene, and there was some reliance on having the chorus huddle together and sing, but that was better than having too much stage business. The cast stayed within the conductor’s line of sight more than is usually the case nowadays. Whether due to Sundine or part of Jo’s regular interpretation, the big scenes – Lucia’s confrontation and the “Mad Scene” – were superb.