Rare was the moment in Sunday’s matinee performance of Verdi’s La Traviata by North Carolina Opera when vivid sets, lavish costumes and lush Romantic music failed to dazzle the eyes and ears of the enthusiastic audience at Raleigh’s Memorial Auditorium.

Melodic and moving, the heartbreaking story of love, ego and death also stirred the soul. Structured in four scenes across three acts, Verdi’s popular work defines “grand” opera at its Grandest – encompassing arias, choruses, dance, expansive orchestral colors and compelling characters amid Francesco Maria Piave’s engaging libretto. The now-familiar tale of “The Fallen Woman” is derived from a mid-19th century play and novel by Alexandre Dumas. But the afternoon contained more than the opera’s usual share of drama, some of it surprising even to fleet-footed cast members.

As Violetta, Vanessa Vasquez moved comfortably and convincingly through the role of the Parisian bon vivant whose libertine inclinations constrain her chance to pursue an exclusive courtship with the earnest but naive Alfredo. Vasquez, a young Columbian American soprano fast making a name for herself on stages from Kennedy Center to Santa Fe, aroused sympathy as a woman torn, scorned and grasping for true love amid terminally failing health. Musically, her voice was unfailing, rattling the rafters at higher registers while resonating warmly at lower ones. Shedding brilliant light on her character’s dark predicament at the end of Act I, Vazquez clutched the neck of a champagne bottle and proceeded to seize the afternoon with Sempre liberal – and never looked back.

Act II was divided into two scenes, the first dressed in wintry white and the second in deep purple, that moved the narrative forward considerably. Here we meet Giorgio Germont, proud father of the star-struck Alfredo, who appeals privately to Violetta to release his son from her seductive spell and spare his family’s honor. Baritone Andrew Manea radiated a quiet charisma in the role of Giorgio, unflinching in his character’s honest assessment of Violetta’s tragic position. Manea, a youthful talent with a mellow voice and confident stage presence, and Vasquez displayed considerable professional chemistry and sonic complementarity during their important duets, “Pura siccome un angelo” and “Ah! Dite alla giovine,” leading one to hope this production might be the first of more collaborations between them. Later on, the Parisian party scene offered the ideal opportunity for the company’s strong supporting cast and excellent chorus to shine. Neither disappointed, and it was all some audience members could do to resist the temptation to hop on stage and join the fun.

With its dull grays and browns, the set for Act III immediately foretold the story’s tearful conclusion as the disgraced Alfredo races to make amends with the dying Violetta. Contrasting Act II’s expansiveness, this was largely a scene of social isolation and emotional despair. Those new to the story were free to feel a sense of mystery as to how such tension could possibly resolve itself. In a final soulful duet (“Parigi, o cara, noi lasceremo”), Alfredo convincingly atones for his earlier indignities toward his lover but is otherwise powerless to restore her fading health. Ever the responsible dad, Giorgio makes his own apologies for his key role in the tragedy as Violetta helplessly grasps at a last-second miracle.

Seasoned conductor Joseph Mechavich was adept in pulling together Verdi’s iconic music, keeping the pace moving forward while allowing his performers – and the audience – to savor every masterful note. Raleigh’s Memorial Auditorium underwent major renovations by the City in 2015 and is now a far more conducive venue for grand opera than it had been previously. The dutiful staff of the Martin Marietta Center for the Performing Arts created a welcoming and accessible vibe for opera-goers young and not-so-young, and it was encouraging to see such a strong turnout on a cloudless October afternoon.

But the performance’s MVP honors must inarguably be divided between three tenors who came together on the fly to overcome unforeseen threats to the production. Late in the first act, pollen-related challenges began showing in the voice of tenor Jonathan Johnson, who was originally cast as Alfredo. Prior to the start of Act II, North Carolina Opera general director Eric Mitchko took the stage to unveil a quickly crafted solution wherein Jason Karn, originally cast in the role of Gastone, would sing the part of Alfredo from the darkened edge of the proscenium while Johnson continued acting the character on stage. Longtime chorus member Wade Henderson assumed the role of Gastone without missing a beat. The adjustment, while at times awkward, proved not just workable but often charming and certainly memorable. The full cast and audience expressed an authentic gratitude to the men for their work together in executing the unusual arrangement with such aplomb.

In spite of – or perhaps because of – the seasonal hiccup, the North Carolina Opera Company, which is now in its 14th year, proved itself more than equal to the task of bringing professional-class grand opera to the Oak City.