Melbourne’s current Verdi festivale continues with Ernani. Rarely performed in Australia, it is a welcome addition to Opera Australia’s repertoire as melodic abundance guarantees an emotionally engaging experience – especially if you are actually sitting in a seat at the State Theatre. In Ernani, Verdi’s fifth opera and composed immediately prior to Rigoletto, a listener familiar with Verdi’s operas can discern distinct musical and dramatic foretastes of what was to come.
There is also nothing like hearing glorious Verdi voices in situ. All principal singers gave outstanding performances; it is worth taking out a loan just to hear Russian bass Alexander Vinogradov. Now that we are unable to travel overseas to hear some of the world’s finest singers, we can be doubly thankful that they have come to us. It was difficult to reconcile his role of what his niece and intended bride, Elvira, calls “quest’odiato veglio” (that odious old man) with such a manly, seductive voice. There was no hint of insecurity or weakness in the voice and little in his physical portrayal of Don Ruy Gomez de Silva. He was deservedly accorded the most enthusiastic reception of the evening during the curtain calls, and at the conclusion of his big Act 1 aria “Infelice!” (Unhappy man) when Silva discovers Ernani and Don Carlo trying to make off with his betrothed.
As Don Carlo (not to be confused with his descendant, Don Carlo of Verdi’s later opera), Bulgarian baritone Vladimir Stoyanov also immediately impressed with a vocally and dramatically strong performance. His voice has the smooth, rich, “gathered” quality of the typical Verdi singer with an almost uncanny projection that enables him to be heard clearly even when singing almost sotto voce. Having a sympathetic conductor in Carlo Montanaro and a responsive orchestra in Orchestra Victoria certainly helped him to achieve this.
Diego Torre, who has been a leading tenor with Opera Australia for many years, gave yet another very fine performance in the title role. Although his voice sounded rather bright and compressed in his opening aria, his delivery became more relaxed and rounded as the evening progressed. At all times he maintained a satisfying tenor ring.
Ernani’s love, Don Carlo’s rapist lust, and Silva’s desire for the “only comfort in my old age” found a worthy focus in Natalie Aroyan’s Elvira. So often singers are presented with their most taxing and exposed aria right at the beginning of an opera and “Ernani, Ernani involami!” (Ernani, fly to me!) is no exception. At its best, Aroyan’s voice is full, warm and beautiful, but undue weighting of the tone made heavy going of it at times, blurring some of the more bel canto like details and introducing the shadow of a tremolo. But in the ensembles Aroyan was wonderful, soaring with resplendent ease above other principals and chorus. Duets, trios and quartets were sung and acted with conviction. And she looked the part.
One of the notable features of OA’s Aida has been the chorus work, especially from the men, who, after all, have the lion’s share of the chorus singing. Aida began with superbly hushed and blended prayer whereas Ernani erupts with a full-bodied, rousing call to live, drink and make merry. We were once again favoured with that special velvety warmth from the men later in the opera, and the ladies made an excellent job of their choruses. Perhaps their splendiferous costumes gave them that extra vitality.
Although some audience members have found the odd assortment of costumes bemusing, it is difficult to criticize their suitability or their effectiveness. Given the construct of a “play within a play” you could almost argue that anything goes. So, we had a rather dirty looking red velvet curtain that was raised to reveal the inner workings of a theatre with stagehands and arriving singers dressed in 19th century attire. Then we had all manner of luxurious palatial recreations wound up and down by said stagehands for changes of scenes. Wherever we were, that theatre must have had a great deal of money because the scenery and costumes looked as though no expense had been spared. Only as a co-production – in this case with La Scala – could OA have been able to mount such a lavish Ernani. The mingling of Mediaeval and Renaissance costumes, culminating in Venetian-style masked Carnivale outfits for the chorus, was in keeping with the connecting thread of comedy that wove its way through director Sven-Eric Bechtolf’s production. The improbable plot, based on Victor Hugo’s play Hernani, was not taken too seriously. Whether having the tenor walk through the soprano’s bedroom with passing acknowledgement as the opera got under way was a good idea is debatable, but it was congruent with other distancing effects especially at the end when the scenery was dismantled during the suicide finale.
This element was further reinforced as fake rocks were maneuvered into position by inept stagehands as the tenor set himself up for Ernani’s first big aria. Some farcical vaudevillian business between Acts – there was only one interval within the four Acts – added to the entertainment. Audience members will have different reactions to this light-hearted, fun way of framing an opera in which the hero has to choose between love and honour.
Even for those who might find the basic concept somehow disrespectful, the thrilling singing and the energy generated by a committed conductor makes Ernani a must for opera lovers.
Photo credit: Jeff Busby
Heather Leviston reviewed “Ernani” presented by Opera Australia at Arts Centre Melbourne, State Theatre on April 13, 2021.
Further performances will be held on May 15, 18 and 22.