The Opera Company of North Carolina’s Managing Director Robert Galbraith is not one to miss an opportunity for drama or melodramma (Italian, by the way, for “opera”). Last year, he invested big bucks to bring Luciano Pavarotti if, for no other reason, than to put little old Raleigh, North Carolina, on the operatic map. As everyone who cares probably knows by now, Galbraith also got a relative rookie in the train of the great star. Soprano Annalisa Raspagliosi, literally emerged from the audience to sub for Pavarotti’s ailing partner for the evening’s performance.

Raspagliosi, whose press bio still describes her first and foremost as “perfecting her tutelage…” captured the hearts and imaginations of the Triangle’s opera buffs. Her rich voice and the sheer drama of her mid-concert rescue made her a natural for a return visit. Raspagliosi, it should be mentioned, is no Cinderella; she has worked hard and is slowly ascending the ladder to operatic stardom. To be taken on by the likes of Pavarotti has been a tremendous step in her career path. And it’s a sure thing that he would never have compromised his own performances with anyone second rate.

With the stage all to herself, Raspagliosi attacked a conventional program of arias balanced with some lesser known art songs. It was a varied and challenging program that emphasized her rich, dramatic soprano voice. The opera fare included all the crowd pleasers you might expect: A Puccini group, including “O mio babbino caro” from Gianni Schicchi, “Mi chiamano Mimí” from La bohème and “Vissi d’arte” from Tosca, concluding with a Verdi group, “Tacea la notte placida” from Il trovatore and “E’strano.Ah, fors’é lui” from La traviata. All five arias require intense acting ability, but many operatic recitalists tend to render them straight because they are out of dramatic context. Raspagliosi, by contrast, threw herself into not only the personalities of the five heroines, but also into the precise dramatic situations in which they find themselves at the point when they sing the given aria. And there was a bonus. Raspagliosi, accompanied by pianist Eugene Kohn, modified the internal tempi to enhance the emotional tension in a way that’s virtually impossible in a staged performance with orchestra. Kohn, also a conductor of opera, was musically admirable as an accompanist, but he frequently forgot he was not in front of an orchestra and tended to conduct from the keyboard.

Raspagliosi also has exceptional dynamic control that she uses to the greatest dramatic effect. Hers is not a “huge” voice, nor is there any reason why it has to be. She has mastered the art of the pianissimo, a feature that should make her roster of Verdi heroines particularly feminine, although we can’t quite see her turning sufficiently nasty for Lady Macbeth. The trio of songs by Debussy, “Beau soir,” “Romance” and “Green,” require a light touch, and she knows how to make her voice delicate when necessary, although she seems less comfortable with the more ephemeral meter of Debussy and got tripped up in the cross rhythm in “Beau soir,” missing an entrance.

Less well known songs on the program included two non-operatic arias by Vincenzo Bellini, “Vaga luna che inargenti” and “Vanne o rosa fortunate,” both of which emphasized the more gentle side of her voice. A nice choice, considering the warhorses she could have selected. Two songs by 19th century Italian-living-in-England, Sir Paolo Tosti rounded out the non-operatic sets.

For us, the only negative part of the program were the two opening songs, “Se tu m’ami,” (possibly by) Pergolesi and “Un certo non so che” by Vivaldi. Both these works are well known to vocal students, but the accompaniments for these Baroque ditties were obviously done over by a mad late nineteenth century Italian with harmonies that would have made the original composers fly screaming from the hall (That’s what you get for only providing a basso continuo.)

The choice of encores that followed the main program was an odd but charming: two arias from Franz Lehár’s German operettas. Sung in Italian, they were like meeting someone out of context. The first was “Vilja O Vilja” from The Merry Widow (or, if you like, La vedova lieta) and the second “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz” from The Land of Smiles (La terra dei sorrisi). They did, however, work better than the Loengrino we once heard in Rome in the 60s.