Early Verdi chestnut Ernani may be strong on melodious music but the stilted story struggles to take flight despite an interesting directorial concept and a suite of strong performances.
Verdi’s fifth opera sees the fair Elvira pursued by the royal flush of a tenor, a baritone and a bass. Engaged to the vile Don de Silva, Elvira is pursued by the king Don Carlos, while her true love remains the dashing bandit Ernani.
Director Sven-Eric Bechtolf places the action on the stage of a ye olde worlde 19th century opera company, manned by hapless stagehands and floundering musicians. So it is not Opera Australia (or production partner Teatro alla Scala) who is doing a dated, static production, it is the “opera company” of this old world.
The concept is wisely not stretched too far, allowing the actual opera to proceed with little interference. Some visible movement of props is amusing but clowning during scene changes between acts one and two and acts three and four falls rather flat.
Showing the singers of old as belonging to a company of players, we see them arrive in “day wear” during the overture, and, in one of the cleverer period touches, the singers who are not in the final act are seen to have changed back to their 19th century day wear for the curtain calls.
Scenic designer Julian Crouch provides a grand construct of wood, ropes and pulleys for the shell and mechanics of the opera house stage. This is then concealed by the painted flats and drawn curtains utilised to present the opera within an opera. Despite the frequent closing of the “house” curtain, scene changes are generally carried out in full view, the painted canvas flats “winched” slowly into view.
The scale of the staging grandly occupies the full width and height of the State Theatre stage, to the extent that it is difficult to envisage how it ever fitted into the Joan Sutherland Theatre at Sydney Opera House.
Costume designer Kevin Pollard draws largely from a warm Mediterranean palette to smartly outfit the company. Crisp jewel tones make a memorable feature of the masked revellers at the climactic wedding.
Working in the larger configuration of the State Theatre pit, maestro Carlo Montanaro draws a sumptuous performance from Orchestra Victoria. Cabalettas have a deliciously brisk pulse, adding a welcome touch of excitement to the performance.
Working with a sizable contingent of Opera Australia Chorus, Paul Fitzsimon ensures that Verdi’s stirring choruses are heard at their best. Highlights include the men’s act three chorus “Si redesti il Leon Di Castiglia” and the full company climax of act three. Presumably working in line with the opera within an opera conceit, it is understandable, and yet also something of a lost opportunity, that the chorus members are required to remain in drearily static arrangements when their music is often so lively.
Tenor Diego Torre neatly balances the dashing and romantic requirements of the title role of Ernani. He begins in crisp form, his clarion tenor ringing out brightly in “Come rugiada al cespite;” in the subsequent cabaletta “O tu che l’alma adora,” however, he experiences difficulty on the final high note. To his credit, Torre’s confidence resumes for the remainder of the opera, the strength of his voice particularly evident when heard clearly above the full company.
Her star ever on the rise, soprano Natalie Aroyan is a delight in the lone lead female role of Elvira. Despite the poor young woman’s constricted social freedom, Aroyan provides a lively spark of passion to suggest a vibrant inner life for the character. Aroyan’s gorgeously voluptuous soprano is a marvellous asset to the production, heard at its best from her first scene, including “Tutto sprezzo che d’Ernani,” onwards.
Doing double duty in repertory with Aida, Alexander Vinogradov is in superb form, practically stealing the entire opera with his magnificent first scene “Infelice!… e tu credevi… che mai vegg’io!” Vinogradov is fearless in conveying the black heart of Don de Silva, the thrill of his luxurious, unwavering bass voice leaving the audience wanting more.
Bulgarian baritone Vladimir Stoyanov maintains a dynamic presence as lovestruck king Don Carlos (who is a later incarnation of the title character of Verdi masterwork Don Carlos). Although he experienced some slight difficulties with pitch on opening night, Stoyanov nonetheless displayed a bright, expressive vocal tone.
Although perhaps better suited to concert performances, the musical quality of this season of Ernani will surely delight lovers of Verdi’s genius.
The Ernani program can be read online.
Man in Chair reviewed Ernani at Met Opera, New York.
Photos: Jeff Busby