Opera-Australia-Ernani-photo-by-Jeff-BusbyGiuseppe Verdi enjoyed widespread success with his early period Ernani, a four-act dramma lirico based on Victor Hugo’s play Hernani, after it premiered in 1844 in Venice.

Verdi’s reputation as a great composer of opera had already been cemented with Nabucco (1842) and I Lombardi (1843) and, like them, Ernani is a melodious canvas of intoxicating arias, ensembles and rousing chorus work.

These days it doesn’t hit the stage often but a new co-production between Opera Australia and Milan’s Teatro alla Scala from director Sven-Eric Bechtolf makes a thoroughly vibrant and entertaining job of it.

Put simply, Ernani is the story of three earnest men who duel in sword and song for the heart of a fair maiden. The titular character Ernani (an Aragonese nobleman disguised as a bandit) is in love with Elvira, who longs for him too, but she is about to be married to the old, wealthy and influential nobleman, Don Ruy Gomez de Silva. If that’s not enough dramatic fodder, the King of Spain, Don Carlo, is in pursuit of Elvira as well but things don’t turn out well for any of them.

Set in early 16th century Spain against a background of political unrest when honour trumps love, Ernani is a mirror against pent up emotions that need to be resolved at any cost in an age of now outmoded chivalry and moral norms.

At every turn, Ernani’s life is on a knife edge as he invites death upon himself while defending his honour in a seemingly ridiculous competition to outdo any other male. No stranger to weaponry either, Elvira is prepared to go to the same extreme. Bechtolf offers an ingenious solution that gives a little satirical jab at the entire affair and highlights the melodrama a contemporary eye would see in it.

Bechtolf does this by creating a play within a play and, in so doing, removes the audience from any direct intent of realism while reminding them that this is not to be taken overly seriously. So, when the curtain goes up, Bechtolf takes the audience back to the stage of a 19th century grand theatre as Ernani is about to be performed.

All the intricate details of a working stage are impressively presented as the magic of theatre is created in Julian Crouch’s evocative scenic designs, Kevin Pollard’s fabulously ornate costumes and Marco Filibeck’s beautifully enhancing lighting design. As a 21st century thinker, we are given the license to look back at the theatrical magic of the past as they might have engineered and act it out – and have a bit of a chuckle along the way.

The opera’s sumptuous staging of its 16th century setting is accompanied by exaggerated operatic acting as befits our impressions of the era and humorous episodes as stage hands carry out their duties. No one escapes attention, especially de Silva who bursts in during the thrilling singing of Act 1’s trio of Elvira, Ernani and Don Carlo in a flamboyantly draped costume and later, when drawing his sword, produces a lengthy weapon that could intimidate any rival. He may be old but de Silva is up for anything.

And so is Russian bass Alexander Vinogradov who leads an excellent and well-matched cast with tenor Diego Torre in the title role, soprano Natalia Aroyan as Elvira and baritone Vladimir Stoyanov as Don Carlo. Nothing seems to phase Vinogradov’s fabulously mountainous-voiced de Silva. Master of a lavish palace, de Silva is brought to intriguing life with Vinogradov’s outstanding performance.

Aroyan’s Elvira is determined and courageous but not enough to overcome her helpless place among men and the distress she feels in her predicament. In Elvira’s signature Act 1 cavatina, Ernani, Ernani involami / Ernani, Ernani, save me, where she reaffirms her deep emotions for Ernani, Aroyan captures it in lush and confident form.

A little more subtlety and shading could have been employed on opening night but Aroyan is a delight to listen to, seduces with her dark lower register and goes on to simply thrive amongst the big ensemble and choruses with powerful top notes.

In a performance full of zest and stamina, Torre is a fiercely heroic Ernani, one whose passions are piping hot and who pairs with Aroyan’s Elvira in a wonderful combination of emotions, commitment and thrillingly harmonised vocals. Torre shoots high and achieves greatly in his performance, all the way to a melodramatic death in front of his bride he so longed for.

Stoyanov is commanding as Don Carlo, verging on lechery in his declaration of desire for Elvira as well as exposing a hint of humanity in his notably strong rendition of Act 3’s Oh, de’ verd’anni miei / Oh, the dreams and deceits of my youth, in which Carlo resolves to change his life if he is crowned Holy Roman Emperor. In Don Carlo, there is a complexity of character that Stoyanov richly draws out with his deeply burnished baritone.

Getting underway with a galloping great swathe of singing from the chorus of brigands, the men of the Opera Australia Chorus are in superb voice. The woman are just as fine as an elegant chorus of hand maids and noblewomen.

Orchestra Victoria also showcases their many talents under conductor Carlo Montanaro who clearly understood and translated the synergy between music and stage direction and the score’s ability to flex for maximum benefit.

The overall effect is total exhilaration which might take you by surprise and get you wanting to come back for more. With the bar having been raised, what is Ernani for, if not for this?

State Theatre – Arts Centre Melbourne, 100 St Kilda Road, Melbourne
Performance: Thursday 13 May 2021
Season continues to 22 May 2021
Information and Bookings:

Image: Diego Torre as Ernani, Natalie Aroyan as Elvira and Alexander Vinogradov as Don Ruy Gomez De Silva in Opera Australia’s 2021 production of Ernani at Arts Centre Melbourne – photo by Jeff Busby

Review: Paul Selar