Verdi’s Ernani Returns to Lyric Opera of Chicago in a compelling performance

United StatesUnited States Verdi, Ernani: Soloists, Chorus, and Orchestra of Lyric Opera of Chicago / Enrique Mazzola (conductor). Civic Opera House, Chicago, 16.9.2022. (JLZ)

Quinn Kelsey (Don Carlo) and Christian Van Horn (Don Ruy Gómez de Silva) © Cory Weaver

Director – Louisa Muller
Assistant director – David Carl Toulson
Sets & Costumes – Scott Marr
Lighting – Duane Schuler
Fight director – Nicolas Sandys
Chorus master – Michael Black

Ernani – Russell Thomas
Elvira – Tamara Wilson
Don Carlo – Quinn Kelsey
Giovanna – Katherine DeYoung
Don Ruy Gómez de Silva – Christian Van Horn
Jago – Ron Dukes
Riccardo – Alejandro Luévanos
Ghost of Ernani’s father – Joshua Moaney

The Lyric Opera of Chicago opened the 2022–2023 season with Giuseppe Verdi’s Ernani and a cast that brought this nineteenth-century opera to life for twenty-first century audiences. Based on Victor Hugo’s 1830 play about the love of three powerful men for Elvira and their conflicting emotions, loyalties and betrayals, the opera was significant in its day for its revolutionary approach to French drama. Verdi’s accomplishment in setting the Hugo work is helped by Francesco Maria Piave’s concise libretto, which powerfully telegraphs the dramatic elements of the play and provides the composer with opportunities for enduring bel canto numbers and ensembles that set the opera apart from those by his contemporaries. The titles for each act offer useful points of reference which are borne out in Verdi’s score: Act I: ‘The Bandit’; Act II: ‘The Guest’; Act III: ‘Clemency’; and Act IV: ‘The Mask’.

Tamara Wilson as Elvira delivered a stunning performance throughout. Her opening aria, ‘Ernani involami’, captured the emotional pitch of Elvira as she realizes that only her lover, Ernani, can save her from an impending loveless marriage to her uncle, Don Ruy Gomez de Silva. Wilson’s full, vibrant tone was present from the start, and she executed the florid runs with style and clarity. Her phrasing made the text particularly meaningful, as she used her voice to draw the audience into her plight with full bel canto style. Wilson made this familiar number her own with the impeccable delivery of an artist at the top of her form.

Ensembles later in that act and elsewhere in the opera benefited from Wilson’s talented, insightful performance, where dynamics and articulations emerged naturally to underscore the musical lines. It was all as compelling as it seemed effortless, as in the second-act duet ‘Ah, morir potessi adesso’ when Ernani reveals himself to Elvira during the preparations for her wedding with Silva. The passion implicit in Verdi’s score came to life, with Wilson’s intensity never sacrificing precision and accuracy in pitch and tone. This is a Verdi soprano of the first rank, as she demonstrated previously at Lyric in Il trovatore. With Ernani, Wilson gave audiences the opportunity to hear the powerful musical ideas that Verdi composed with such elegance.

As Carlo, the king of Spain who would become the Holy Roman Emperor, Quinn Kelsey defined the role with a stunning performance. His full sound and long lines fit the music that Verdi employed in many baritone roles, and Kelsey showed his masterful technique persuasively, from his entrance into Elvira’s chamber in Act I through his commanding performance in Act III. Kelsey conveyed a lover’s passion in Act II which set him at odds with Silva. This was particularly evident in ‘Lo vedremo, veglio audace’, an aria where Kelsey’s artful shaping of the lines allowed the music and the text to intersect effectively. He maintained pitch in the forte passages without becoming strident or forced. It was a pleasure to hear his consummate delivery of ‘Oh, de’ verd’anni miei’ with the authority embedded in his character and the musicianship of one of the world’s top Verdians.

The part of Silva is not always easy to perform without resorting to a caricature of the scheming older suitor (and uncle at that!), but Christian Van Horn used the music to depict the character convincingly. Easily in his range, the part of Silva sounded natural for Van Horn. His horror when he discovers not one but two men in Elvira’s chamber the night before their wedding emerged well in ‘Infelice!…e tu credevi…che mai vegg’io!’, where his precise bass-baritone gave a note-perfect reading of the part. The evenness of his range showed well, especially in the lower tessitura which rang out with the resolve that Van Horn brought to his character. The facial expressions that Van Horn used enhanced his interpretation and stood apart in a production which, at times, needed such details. As a result, Van Horn added dimensions to a role that is sometimes played as a cardboard villain – his Silva was wonderfully dynamic and engaging.

Russell Thomas was estimable as Ernani, with the opening number, ‘Come rugiada al cespite’,  giving a sense of his approach to the role. He has a good round sound, and while it sometimes had to compete with the orchestra in fuller passages, it nonetheless had presence. Thomas’s ensemble work in this production stands out, and he showed his sense of Verdi’s style with well-timed entrances and careful phrasing. His vow to Silva, ‘Odi il voto o grande Iddio’, was particularly effective, as was the final duet with Elvira before the tragic end. He paced the concluding passages with a good sense of the text and musical line.

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Ernani © LOC

As to the production, it was uncharacteristically static for the Lyric. The blocking could have enhanced the numbers in making use of body language, juxtaposing actors more effectively, using stage lights to denote some of the asides, and other techniques to underscore the drama. The scenes that involved groups of men preparing for battle by raising swords was a trope that did not easily distinguish the brigands from the soldiers, and by Act III it seemed like a cliché. As to discerning the different groups, costumes were changed from brigands in the first act to soldiers in the second, and it was easy to see that the same actors might have just used a different jacket. With a work like Ernani, more stagecraft could add to the presentation.

Enrique Mazzola led the orchestra in good style, his tempos allowing the bel canto elements to emerge. While the pacing of the overture was somewhat slow, the remainder of the performance moved with welcome ease. At times, the orchestra was louder than necessary. One passage in particular stood out: Carlo’s monologue in Act III, where the ostinato in the low strings was overly prominent. These details should not detract from this unquestionably strong performance which brough Ernani back to Lyric’s stage.

It would be irresponsible not to advise caution about attending events in Chicago at the Civic Opera House and other venues in the Loop because of the blocks-long gridlock from the nightly car and truck parties that have closed streets and stopped buses and other public transportation. With people tossing fireworks at pedestrians from cars, caution is in order until safety resumes in the Loop. Let us hope that Chicago can resolve the issues soon for patrons of the Lyric and other ensembles.

James L. Zychowicz

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