When is a cliché not a cliché?

ItalyItaly Verdi, Ernani: Orchestra and Chorus of Teatro dell’Opera, Rome.  Conductor: Riccardo Muti, (Chorus Master: Roberto Gabbiani). Rome, 1.12.2013. (JB)

Sets, costumes and staging by Hugo de Ana (new coproduction with Sydney Opera House)

Ernani (Don Giovanni of Aragon) – Francesco Meli
Don Ruy Gomez de Silva – Ildebrando D’Arcangelo
Elvira – Tatiana Serjan

At the first interval of Ernani an English visitor to Rome asked me if I spoke his language.  I said I did.  He asked me if I hadn’t found the first act somewhat inelegant.  I said that inelegance hadn’t entered into my reactions; with early Verdi I was on the look-out for an unstoppable life-force which seemed to me to override all other considerations and with Riccardo Muti on the rostrum that was usually guaranteed as indeed, it had been tonight.

He probably thought I was a bit crackers.  But I mean this.  That life-force in the early Verdi operas comes with some rough and tumble.  You like this rawness or you don’t.  But if you look for sophistication or polished elegance, you will be disappointed.  It’s fascinating to see what Verdi gets away with.  Written by anyone else, some of these bars would sound banal.  And so, in fact, does Verdi.  But Verdi’s banality is an art. When is a cliché not a cliché? Answer: when it is written by Giuseppe Verdi.

Part of the trick is timing.  Verdi is very good at lulling his audience into a false security, then creating an unexpected interruption to break the pattern.  His sense of theatre is so secure that we feel he will never let us down.  Yet when he switches off the security there is the greatest fun of all.

Here is the plot of Ernani  in the vernacular of Verdi’s own down-to-earthness: Three blokes are all after the same noble woman, Donna Elvira (soprano): her uncle and fiancé, Don Ruy Gomez de Silva (baritone), Don Carlo, King of Spain (bass) and Ernani, a presumed bandit with his own henchmen but in reality, Don Giovani of Aragon (tenor)

Does that sound like a cliché of an opera plot?  It is.  But Verdi fleshes this out, not with any character drawing or development through music (that would come much later) but by spinning one magic melody after another –in the hope that his theatres will find the right voices to sing them.  And that someone will keep the show moving at a lively pace.  Thank Riccardo Muti there.

In 1989 I was part of the jury at the Toti Dal Monte Singing competition in Treviso.  At the end of a dreary, fruitless morning of auditions, a singularly handsome twenty year old man stepped onto the stage, causing Regina Resnik to exclaim, Well this one would only have to appear to get a round of applause.   But there was better to come.  When he sang, the jury looked at one another in disbelief.  Here was the most lush, expressive voice, perfectly supported.  Magda Olivero (surely the greatest authority on Italian vocal technique and still with us at the age of one hundred and three) called after him, Bravo, figlio mio!  Continua così.  Magda then turned to me and said, If he keeps up this technique, he will sing forever.

And here, twenty-four  years on, Ildebrando D’Arcangelo is fulfilling Magda’s prophecy.  And he’s just as handsome too.  When Silva discovers Elvira with the King and  Ernani, Verdi hands him a luscious aria –Infelice! E tuo  credevi which D’Arcangelo delivers from the depths of his unshakable (vocal) basis, which twins well with the composer’s own solidity.  Giuseppe Verdi and Ildebrando D’Arcangelo were made to know one another well.  And so they do.

Luca Salsi was equally impressive and authoritative as the King, especially in his turbulent third act aria –Gran Dio! Costor sui sepolcrali marmi– which is a moving duet with cello solo  -Italy’s finest cellist, Andrea Noferini, in the pit in that role.  Salsi began the evening a little underpowered but by the time he arrived at this great moment, he was on top form,

Francesco Meli remains a world leader of Italian heroic tenors and made a clear claim to his title in Ernani’s opening scene.  In the early part of the opera he was a little throaty but that cleared up as he progressed.  The final duet was moving, as Meli alone on today’s scene could make it.

Ernani  was the first opera I saw at the Rome house.  That was in March 1967.  The conductor is best forgotten.  The shouting-tenor, Mario del Monaco, made his usual effect in the title role.  But the performance will always remain with me for Antonietta Stella’s Elvira.  She was the ideal soprano spinto –a voice which is hard to find these days.  Elvira stands or falls by her one great aria in which we meet her –Ernani!  Ernani, involami  and the expressive agilità of its caballetta –Tutto sprezzo che d’Ernani.  Stella delivered magnificently on both accounts.

Maestro Muti seems intent on performing as many Verdi operas as possible with Tatiana Serjan.  And indeed she was an admirable Lady Macbeth and just as impressive as Abigaille.  Both those roles require dramatic colouring.  And Serjan has this by the bucket full.  She even convinced us that Elvira has more drama in her makeup than we had formerly thought.  Conviction is part of her art.  Her lower notes have an almost contralto quality.  And she has now moved near to mastering the pronunciation of the Italian language.  But for pure lyricism, Stella’s  Ernani! Ernani, volami  is the one which remains  the most treasured.  All the same, Serjan is enough of a singer-actress to know how to turn that final duet with Ernani into a memorable event.  See photo.

Hugo de Ana’s staging, sets and costumes are never less than dignified and elegant.  But they won’t win any prizes in imagination or originality.

Jack Buckley

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