Bologna: Two Ernanis at the Teatro Comunale

Bologna’s Two Ernanis : Verdi’s Ernani at the Teatro Comunale, Bologna, 17.5.2011 (JB)

Conductor: Roberto Polastri
Stage Director: Beppe de Tomasi
Sets and Costumes: Francesco Zito

Ernani: Roberto Aronica
Don Carlo: Ivan Inverardi
Don Ruy de Silva: Ferruccio Furlanetto
Elvira: Dimitra Theodossiou

Chorus and Orchestra of the Teatro Comunale di Bologna, in a production originally seen at the Teatro Massimo di Palermo in 1999.

Picture Courtesy of Teatro Comunale Bologna

If there were a first prize for geniality at the Italian Opera it would have to go to Giuseppe Verdi. For those of us who have an affinity to the early operas, it has to be said that from the pen of any other composer they would have to be dismissed as obvious or even banal. I have a special affection for his first – Oberto, Conte di Bonifacio. In it, all the aspects of Verdi’s genius are in place, if not fully developed. Thereafter, a problem arises: as his sense of musical theatre undisputedly developed through a very long career, so some of the native talent diminished. His attention was drawn to other matters (rather successfully, according to most of his critics). Stravinsky’s vote for the best Verdi opera goes to Rigoletto. That is a worthy vote: the whole musical melodrama is so well drawn that even the minor characters of Maddalena and Sparafucile are magnificently sketched in musical terms. Moreover, there is hardly a bar of Rigoletto which does not remain fixed in our memories for its melodic invention. But Rigoletto is middle period.

So what of the early operas where the fundamentals of Verdi’s genius are so clearly on display? It takes courage and conviction to write music like this. Verdi had both. What is more, both attributes speak without inhibition to his audiences across time. That is geniality. Even the charge of hurdy-gurdy Verdi would be made with concealed affection. There is an inevitability about this music. It sounds as though it composed itself. And you can’t get better than that. Just ask Mozart.

Ernani was Verdi’s fifth Opera. It presents a challenge for any Casting Director. Where, on today’s scene, does one find singers with courage, conviction and geniality? Bologna had settled for finding two of the three attributes; only in one instance did they find all three.

I have been lucky with my Ernanis, including a memorable performance from Mario del Monaco, whose detractors used to dub him ‘the shouting tenor’. Some justification for that, too: I don’t believe anyone heard him sing quieter than mezzo-forte. However, he had a golden, ringing voice, so some geniality came across with the conviction. Besides, he was a strikingly handsome chap, athletic of movement and so suited to heroic roles. Ernani, you will recall, was a Prince disguised as a bandit. Roberto Aronica (Bologna’s choice) had also abandoned bel canto for can belt-o, but when you don’t have a voice of del Monaco quality (and who does?) continuous loud singing can very quickly become tiring on the ear. So out goes Verdi’s geniality.

Ivan Inverardi (Don Carlo) was found woefully wanting in all three of my test qualities. He barked his way through those fine arias which Verdi has so thoughtfully provided for a singer. His voice is thin and reedy as well as forced. In spite of a tall, dignified stage presence (much helped by Francesco Zito’s costumes), his vocal delivery failed.

Dimitra Theodossiou was almost just as weak as Elvira. Her opening aria and cabaletta – Ernani! Ernani involami – is one of Verdi’s most engaging. Theodossiou has not even begun to consider the possibilities of vocal charm. (Antonetta Stella was my most memorable Elvira.) But this Greek lady has an unfortunate tendency to sing with her head bowed down which muffles what is already a small voice; small, but with an irritating buzz fork edge to it.

The vocal treasure which I take away from Bologna and which will remain in my aural memory forever, was Ferruccio Furlanetto’s Silva. His magnificent delivery of that fine aria in Act 1 – Infelice! E tuo credevi – has probably never been bettered in live or recorded performances. It is rather easy for Silva to become the hero of this opera, and in Bologna he did, not least because he had no competitor. Courage? He has it by the bucketful. Conviction? Was there ever a singer who was so comfortably secure in his delivery? Geniality? His warmth and richness of tone quite simply make him Don Silva. It is clear from the way the part is written that Verdi liked this character. And in Bologna, so did we.

The conductor, Roberto Polastri, made the Prelude sound as though he were bored with it. He hurried us through this little meditation as though ashamed of it. To be sure, these are not Verdi’s best pages. But there is considerable charm to be extracted for a conductor who will take the trouble to identify it. Matters improved when the curtain went up on the chorus of bandits. The faster tempi were mostly nicely pointed, giving the right dramatic thrust to the proceedings. Polastri sometimes has trouble keeping stage and orchestra together; too many of those uncalled for arpeggiated effects between stage and accompaniment. He is, though, considerate of singers’ needs and never allows the orchestra to overwhelm them.

I found Beppe de Tomasi’s stage direction rather static. In a drama which contains so much action, stillness has little place. He is inclined to be content with bringing on the chorus, standing them still, having them sing, then taking them off. Worse, he does the same with the principals. At best, the stillness adds dignity to the show. And there are admittedly moments when this is part of Verdi’s dramaturgy. For my own part, I found the lighting too fixed; more points could have been made with more variants.

Francesco Zito’s sets and costumes stole the visual side of the show. If you want dignity, Zito delivers it generously. My own favourite set was Act 2 – as the libretto has it – a magnificent hall in the palace of Don Ruy Gomez de Silva. Huge stone pillars and stained glass windows reach up into the rafters of the stage, giving you the kind of feeling you get in Barcelona’s Santa Maria del Mar, where such space-accentuated loftiness could only possibly end at the point where it meets with God.

The Teatro Comunale of Bologna is Italy’s oldest, continuously active Opera House, already considering elaborate plans for their 250th anniversary celebrations in 2013. By a happy coincidence, this staging of Ernani greets the arrival of the theatre’s new sovrintendente, Francesco Ernani. Dr. Ernani began a distinguished career by putting La Scala’s finances on the right track and was for ten years, until recently, the sovrintendente of the Rome Opera. Known throughout Italy for his managerial skills, he has an almost uncanny knack for evaluating value for money: he will pay only when he is satisfied that he is getting a proper return, assessed right down to the last euro. There is a down-to-earth, no-nonsense air to this management style. In this, he has something in common with Giuseppe Verdi. We wish him a long and prosperous reign in this prestigious House.

Jack Buckley