Vocal firepower and a handsome production overcome the stilted drama in Lyric’s “Ernani”

Thu Oct 29, 2009 at 11:23 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

 Carlo (Boaz Daniel), Elvira (Sondra Radvanovsky) and Ernani (Salvatore Licitra) in Verdi's "Ernani." Photo by Dan Rest.
Carlo (Boaz Daniel) looks on at Elvira (Sondra Radvanovsky) and Ernani (Salvatore Licitra) in Verdi’s Ernani. Photo by Dan Rest.

In a dramatic moment in Act 1, King Carlo confronts his archenemy, the nobleman-turned-bandit Ernani and boldly avers, “Disdain overwhelms me.”

It’s hard not to feel the same reaction to the libretto of Ernani. Verdi’s fifth opera was the first to gain the composer acclaim outside his native Italy, and has its share of compelling arias, rousing choruses, and an extended final trio that accounts for much of Ernani’s initial success.

Yet, even more than most early Verdi, Ernani suffers from dramatic silliness and improbable motivations—most notably a hero who seems more intent on getting himself killed than emerging triumphant, and a final scene where amid matrimonial rejoicing, Ernani commits suicide to honor his pledge to the villain Silva. Such elements make Verdi’s tale of three rivals in 16th-century Aragon vying for the affections of Elvira a supreme challenge to pull off, and the Lyric Opera’s only previous Ernani, with Grace Bumbry, took place a quarter-century ago.

Happily, the Lyric has entered the fray again with a handsome new production, which opened Tuesday night. With a cast of four largely terrific principal singers, the Lyric’s Ernani manages to serve up plenty of Italianate vocal firepower, sufficient to mostly override the ludicrous moments.

Despite being hobbled, literally, by leg and foot injuries, Sondra Radvanovsky proved herself a trouper for keeping her Lyric commitment. The Berwyn-born soprano’s Verdian bona fides are well known, but Tuesday her Elvira managed to surpass even the highest expectations. Radvanovsky’s lustrous soprano was resplendent in Act 1 with a glorious Ernani, involami, beautifully sung with rich, even tone and notable dramatic expression; she tossed off the ensuing cabaletta Tutto sprezzo with fleet and vivacious coloratura.

The only complaint about her Elvira was that there wasn’t more of her (blame Verdi), but Radvanovsky illuminated her every moment on stage, with natural acting and sterling vocalism, her brilliant top notes cutting through the massed ensembles with gleaming impact. Apart from a barely perceptible limp, the singer disguised her physical condition so successfully—kneeling, running and doing all that is asked of her in this production—that her injuries are a non-issue.

After Act 1, it was announced that her Ernani, Salvatore Licitra, was ailing from tracheitis, but would continue the performance. That would help to account for the rather short-breathed phrases and the tenor’s husky rasp on his low notes.

But for the most part, Licitra made a worthy hero, vocally and dramatically. At its best, Licitra’s tenor has the requisite Italianate warmth, volume and lyric squillo, and Licitra was credible dramatically in a thankless role, with powerful top notes and his voice blending gracefully with Radvanovsky in the duets and final scene.

As so often with Verdi, the villains in Ernani are infinitely more interesting than the hero, and few more so than Silva, the aged grandee intent on marrying Elvira. The old, rich man who lusts after the beautiful young girl was a buffa staple even at the time of Ernani’s premiere (Don Pasquale had premiered just the year before), yet Verdi makes Silva much more than an archetype. While Carlo rises above his less worthy qualities by the end of the opera, Silva gives full vent to them, descending from a rather touching old man to an embittered monster intent on extracting his revenge at the cost of destroying two lives.

Giacomo Prestia made a sensational Lyric Opera debut as Silva. The lovelorn old duke is often in danger of coming across as slightly comic, yet Prestia cut an imposing and dangerous figure, the towering Italian bass looking like he could drop-kick both Ernani and Carlo without breaking a sweat.

Prestia’s instrument is extraordinary, a booming basso that he wielded with refinement and expressive poise, as with his opening aria, Infelice, e tuo credevi. Throughout Prestia was alive to the drama without ever descending to mere bluster, his huge voice and stylish singing contributing mightily to the impact of the climactic trio and the overall success of this production.

Boaz Daniel’s burnished voice is less inherently Italianate than the rest of the cast, but the Israeli baritone made an equally well-rounded character out of Carlo, the king who rises above personal jealousy and animosity upon his election as emperor (would that more Illinois politicians would do the same in a less royal capacity). Daniel was a forceful, vividly painted Carlo and made the most of his several arias, bringing the requisite intensity to the tomb scene with a magnificent O de’verd’anni miei.

Apart from the bare-bones design for the bandit camp of Act 1 and final masque, Scott Marr’s striking sets and costumes provided welcome visual distraction from the storyline. Marr presented an elegant Moorish Minimalism for Silva’s palace and a nice staging touch with Charlemagne’s elevated tomb in Act 3. Duane Schuler’s lighting contributed painterly chiaroscuro throughout.

Paul Corona and Rene Barbera offered fine support as Jago and Riccardo, respectively. Under Donald Nally’s direction the Lyric Opera Chorus provided clarion ensemble singing to match the principals. The men, in particular, had a high time in their various guises as courtiers and bandits with a thrilling rendition of the call to arms, Si ridesti il Leon di Castiglia.

Director Jose Maria Condemi bravely took Piave’s creaky libretto at face value and deftly mitigated many of the staging pitfalls, drawing admirable acting from his singers. Still, even the skillful Condemi couldn’t make the final scene work, and Ernani’s abrupt suicide elicited audible laughter from the opening-night audience.

Conductor Renato Palumbo provided a virtual seminar in Verdi conducting, leading the orchestra with dramatic intensity and rhythmic swagger. The large ensemble scenes were powerful projected yet scrupulously balanced and the Italian conductor gave his singers ample room for expressive breadth in their solos and duets.

Verdi’s Ernani runs through Nov. 23 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.  www.lyricopera.org; 312-332-2244.

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