PRINCETON — "It is she who burned the baby!"
Only in Verdi operas would such a sordid accusation appear in formal rhetoric, this line being sung in Il Trovatore, where stock characters, outlandish subplots, and well-worn music formulas vie for supremacy onstage. And though none of those elements has any right to win, Opera New Jersey delivered a compelling fusion of vocal art and blood-steeped melodrama at its Sunday opening at the McCarter Theater. But it took a while to get there.
This is a place where young artists try out new roles in a theater that's sympathetically small by opera standards. Instead of interpretive cultivation, audiences often witness fear-induced inhibitions giving way to an exhilarating sense of discovery. Singers who seemed merely serviceable in Act I had, by the final act, inspired a fan base. And in Verdi, that's saying a lot, and made possible, no doubt, by the operatic bedrock created by conductor Victor DeRenzi and stage director Stephanie Sundine.
Though commonly produced in past generations, Il Trovatore isn't taken on lightly these days: It's not easy to find singers with the robust voices and stage magnetism to keep you from thinking how silly the opera actually is. The story, after all, revolves around a witchlike gypsy who, in an attempt to avenge her mother's death, threw the wrong baby on the fire and raised a kidnapped nobleman as her own. Accidents do happen.
High-concept productions aren't much use here, and Opera New Jersey's, designed by Boyd Ostroff for the Syracuse Opera, sketches an appropriately murky atmosphere without becoming unduly fancy. Cuts were minimal — all in the extra verses within the cabaletta sections of arias.
Though the opera is written in the broadest of strokes, vocal details count for a lot. And after plenty of vocal sameness early on from leading tenor Rafael Davila (Manrico), he created a brief moment while singing a letter his character had received: It was wonderfully quiet and articulate and seemed to open a door to greater levels of artistry in subsequent scenes.
You heard soprano Erica Strauss (Leonora) find greater meaning in the beautiful vocal cadenzas that lift the opera out of its antique dramaturgy. The luxurious baritone of Marco Nistico (Count di Luna) was heard in remarkably lackluster phrasing at first; no such accusations could be made at the final curtain.
A special word on Margaret Mezzacappa, the Academy of Vocal Arts mezzosoprano who won the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. She's everywhere this summer (including a Verdi Requiem with New Jersey State Opera in Ocean Grove on Aug. 16), though the role of the baby-burning gypsy Azucena is an important milestone for anyone with her voice type.
Mezzacappa tends to radiate benevolence in ways that could run counter to such a vengeful character. But for all of the foreboding darkness of her opening aria (taken way too fast), she projected a character who wasn't in command of dark forces but at the mercy of them. Vocally, her mid-weight voice and fast vibrato aren't ideal. Yet as the opera went on, she convincingly recast the role in her own vocal image, partly through the deliberate dignity she brought to the character's grand pronouncements. Another success.
Saturday and July 22 at the Matthews Theatre in Princeton's McCarter Theatre Center; July 29 at Paramount Theatre in Asbury Park, N.J. Information: 609-799-7700 or www.operanj.com.