OA-Ernani-photo-by-Prudence-UptonErnani is the second Verdi co-production for Opera Australia and Teatro Alla Scala, and again it is opera on the grandest scale. Director Davide Livermore moved the action forward a few hundred years for his impressive staging of Attila presented for just two performances last year before falling victim of Covid-19 restrictions.

For this production of Ernani Sven-Eric Bechtolf has retained the original medieval period but re-imagines the opera as it might have been staged at the time it was written.

Thus the curtain rises on a reproduction of a nineteenth century opera house stage, where during the overture stage hands busily prepare for a performance of Ernani. Some check the winding machinery for the backdrops. Others sweep the stage, position props, light candelabra, apply last minute paint to scenery and greet arriving actors.

As the overture moves towards its conclusion, costumed singers take their places and the performance begins. It’s a simple device which works perfectly by making irrelevant any criticism of the irrationalities of the unlikely storyline which revolves around the ambitions of three unlikely suitors, Ernani (Diego Torres) a disgraced nobleman turned brigand; Don Carlo the King of Spain (Vladimir Stoyanov); the aged Don Ruy Gomez de Silva (Vitalij Kowaljow), to whom our heroine Elvira (Natalie Aroyan) has been betrothed against her will. Each of the suitors is vying for Elvira’s attentions but she loves only Ernani.

Carefully reproduced by Teatro Alla Scala revival director Laura Galmarini, Bechtolf’s direction is remarkably static. He has his singers working on two levels simultaneously portraying actors playing characters, as well as being the characters themselves. They deliberately employ old-fashioned, exaggerated gestures while performing their set pieces in the static “park and bark” style.

His fifth opera, Verdi’s Ernani is rarely produced, reputedly because of the old fashioned storyline, but more likely because it requires huge resources, both vocally and physically. For this co-production with La Scala, Opera Australia has been able to field an outstanding cast of principals, only two of whom, baritone Vladimir Stoyanov and bass Vitalij Kowaljow, were making their Sydney Opera House debuts. The rest of the cast, including Natalie Aroyan and Diego Torre who were so impressive in Attila are all local.

Natalie-Aroyan-as-Elvira-and-Diego-Torre-as-Ernani-in-Opera-Australia's-2021-production-of-Ernani photos-by-Prudence-Upton

From the moment she began her first aria, Ernani, Ernani, Save me, confidently negotiating the coloratura passages then plunging octaves to her warm mezzo, Natalie Aroyan had her audience on the edge of their seats, especially in the massive choruses when her voice soared thrillingly above the huge orchestra and chorus. Aroyan was giving a star performance and the audience knew it.

Always a pleasure to listen to, Diego Torre, resplendent in flattering costumes, revelled in the opportunity to play the dual roles of haughty tenor and passionate lover. His duets with Aroyan were sheer joy and when, during the many trios and quartets, they blended voices with those of Stoyanov and Kowaljow, also excellent in their roles, the results were operatic bliss.

During the large set-pieces the large chorus rarely moved out of their tight groupings for  the series of spectacular tableaus, however each delighted by inventing individual mannerisms for their lavishly costumed characters.

It seemed a bit of a shame though that during the elaborate masquerade ball scene the static staging deprived the audience of being able to fully appreciate the particularly sumptuous costumes for the ball guests beyond those positioned in the front line.

However despite the deliberately static staging, Bechtolf provided plenty of visual interest along the way, with stage hands busily positioning scenery and props, or manipulating antiquated ropes and pulleys at the side of the stage to accomplish spectacular scene changes with gorgeous painted backcloths.

During several scenes he had his cast throw flowers on to beds, or nonchalantly strew richly coloured cloaks and shawls around the stage to create beguiling stage pictures. Humorous stage business and quirky cross-overs kept the audience constantly aware that it was watching a show within the show.

Of course, the major advantage of the static staging was to focus the attention on Verdi’s sumptuous score, on this occasion thrillingly interpreted by Verdi expert, Maestro Renato Palumbo whose carefully delineated conducting drew thrilling playing from the Opera Australia Orchestra and inspired brilliant singing from the huge cast.

Despite its many pleasures, it’s unlikely there’ll be another production of Ernani offered in the near future. So if you can possibly manage it during this short season, don’t let this opportunity to experience it pass you by.

Joan Sutherland Theatre – Sydney Opera House, Bennelong Point, Sydney
Performance: Tuesday 2 February 2021
Season continues to 13 February 2021
Information and Bookings:

Image: The cast of Ernani in Opera Australia’s 2021 production at the Sydney Opera House / Natalie Aroyan as Elvira and Diego Torre as Ernani in Opera Australia’s 2021 production of Ernani – photos by Prudence Upton

Review: Bill Stephens OAM