First seen in Venice in 1844 and a huge success for the young composer, Giuseppe Verdi’s ‘Ernani’ is not so much a love triangle as a quartet of search and response.
Three different men court soprano Elvira: the young and passionate titular tenor Ernani, an authoritative and intimidating bass, and a baritone probably best described as complex, given that this particular vocal type usually masters this adjective.
Listening to this formatively rich swirl of Verdi’s roaring melodies at the Lyric Opera on Saturday night, during the opening of Lyric’s fall season and under the gleefully exploratory direction of musical director Enrique Mazzola, was to reflect not only on the exquisite way whose form Verdi could already exploit for musical and dramatic effect but to note again how shared human stories are so often based on the physical archetype. The characters in “Ernani” have personalities that match their voices, or should it be voices that match their personalities? Verdi’s genius was, I suppose, to take a French romantic drama by Victor Hugo (“Hernani”) and render that distinction moot.
That said, Ernani (Russell Thomas), baritone Don Carlo (Quinn Kelsey) and bass Don Ruy Gómez de Silva (Christian Van Horn) are far from equal against Elvira (Tamara Wilson), who is dealing with a court genuine (if a bit forgiving), to a kidnapper (the King of Spain, no less) who forces her to grab his knife in her own defense, and to a guardian enthusiastic about a forced and uninterested marriage by consent. If you look at the work from a less patriarchal perspective than has been common for most of its history, you see a woman struggling for self-determination and agency against three different fates, all chosen by men, only one of whom, at best, really sees her.
Lyric’s production, directed by Louisa Muller with sets and costumes designed by Scott Marr and lights by Duane Schuler, has a sense of that dynamic, even if any point-of-view radicalism feels subsumed by visually staged staging. traditional, filled with grand vistas of 16th-century Spain and humans wandering through various palaces and tombs, their desires constantly struggling with the scale of their surroundings.
Marr made much of the Moorish in his designs, characterized by lamps and lanterns descending from the rafters of the lyrical state house, the soaring verticals contrasting with the sparse surroundings and minimal properties, beyond humans, se twisting in the winds. Frankly, if you explore male guilt, the dehumanizing milieu has the effect of diminishing personal responsibility, which is probably the intention of Verdi and librettist Francesco Maria Piave. It’s a legitimate way to see how powerful people interacted in their love and desire in the 16th century, but perhaps not the most interesting way to enter this opera now.
Wilson, who accomplishes a lot with a vocally demanding role, encapsulates Elvira’s condition through her beautiful, centered voice, though this theme could have been taken much further. Thomas, a sincere tenor, sings gloriously throughout, albeit at times an internalized performance, coming from the heart of the singer but at times constrained by the lapels of his tunic and not necessarily radiating love for the object of his affection. Even though he reads hardly as old or as parental as Francesco Maria Piave’s libretto implies, Van Horn is another richly complex vocalist and a powerful stage presence.
But of the three men at the heart of this opera, it is the most pugnacious of the three who seems the most alive and vibrant, no matter how heinous the character he embodies. Kelsey’s performance is truly something, roaring from his boots, present, alive, pained, unapologetic and able to conjure up the primal.
Emotionally, the production doesn’t quite fire up in the devilishly difficult final act, given its collision of honor and desire. That’s partly because the emotional and vocal bond between Elvira and Ernani doesn’t beat hard enough to bring to the fore one of the opera’s main themes, which is how some lives are so trapped within the confines of power that idealistic passion can only result in pain, a situation not yet unknown to royalty.
Herald, however, the Lyric’s return to some degree of performative normality after two and a half such difficult years, characterized in this crucial institution by a particular invention and imagination.
Alas, not all seats were by any means full on the opening night of the 68th season, a reminder of the necessary recovery that still lies mostly in the future.
Chris Jones is a reviewer for the Tribune.
Review: “Ernani” (3 stars)
When: until October 1 (in the directory)
Where: Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive
Duration: 2 hours 50 minutes
Tickets: $40 to $330 at 312-827-5600 and lyricopera.org