Verdi’s Early ‘Ernani’ Soars As Stellar Cast Lights Up Fraught Tale

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A scene from Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production of Verdi’s ‘Ernani.’ (Photos by Cory Weaver)

By Timothy H. Lindeman

CHICAGO — Terrific singing and wonderful production values ruled Lyric Opera of Chicago‘s opener for the 2022-23 season, Verdi’s early Ernani. The tragic tale of a love quadrangle based on Victor Hugo’s novel featured four superlative principals as well as a chorus of more than 40 voices that captured the spectacle and powerful drama of the work. Enrique Mazzola, in his second year as Lyric Opera’s music director, deftly negotiated a score that careens from full-blown heart-on-sleeve romanticism to subtle, intimate pianissimos.

Verdi’s 1844 opera, with an Italian libretto by Francesco Maria Piave, draws on Hugo’s the 1830 play Hernani. The Verdi-Piave adaptation was very successful, and the composer wrote 11 more operas in seven years before he penned some of his most popular works: Rigoletto (1851), Il trovatore, and La traviata (both premiering in 1853).

In this restaging of Lyric’s production first seen in the 2009-10 sesaon, tenor Russell Thomas was vocally magnificent as Ernani, the son of the murdered king of Spain, who is in love with Elvira, also wonderfully sung by soprano Tamara Wilson. Elvira just happens to be the niece, ward, and love interest of Don Ruy Gomez de Silva, heartily sung by bass Christian Van Horn. But wait, there’s more to this love tangle: Quinn Kelsey brought his brilliant baritone to Don Carlo, the future elected Holy Roman Emperor (and the son of the king who murdered Ernani’s father), who is also in love with Elvira. What’s a girl to do?

Tamara Wilson as Elvira and Russell Thomas as Ernani.

In Ernani’s opening aria, “Come rugiada al cespite” (As the flower turns to the sun), Thomas sang of heart-felt love with warmth and passion — a promise of the excellent vocalism to follow. His timbre was by turns rich, stentorian, soft, or whispered, as in the final scene when Ernani is dying. Elvira’s “Ernani, Ernani involami” (Ernani, Ernani, save me), which opens the second scene, was a tour-de-force and amply displayed her range as well as Elvira’s passion for her lover. The soprano displayed a thrilling ability to pare down her voice from a forte to a pianissimo.

Thomas and Wilson had a shared opportunity to wow the audience in the lovers’ duet “Ah, morir potessi adesso” (Ah, if I could die now), and they delivered with beautiful, tender singing.

Don Carlos’s first aria, “Lo vedremo, veglio audace” (We shall see, you bold old man), has a pulsating orchestral accompaniment that provided a perfect underpinning for the profound disdain expressed, an emotion well suited to a jealous lover and a future king. Kelsey’s ample and well-rounded voice bespoke an impressive Verdi baritone.

Van Horn’s performance of “Infelice!” (Unhappy man) revealed a rich bass. His dark, serious, and forthright timbre befitted his somber character.

The chorus serves several roles throughout the opera, from the bold bandits singing in the first scene “Evviva! Beviam! Beviam!” (To you we drink), with its lightning-fast words — expertly sung. The women join the men on several occasions in Silva’s castle, adding to the pomp required for the nobility. Then there is the chorus of “traitors” who appear at Charlemagne’s tomb, intending to kill Don Carlo (until it is announced that he has been elected Holy Roman Emperor). He takes on the mantle of Charlemagne and magnanimously forgives them and agrees to the marriage between Ernani and Elvira.

Other singing roles include Giovanna (Elvira’s nurse), sung by soprano Katherine DeYoung, Jago (Silva’s equerry) by tenor Ron Dukes, and Riccardo (Carlo’s equerry) by bass Alejandro Luévanos. All were solid efforts and served the purpose of the plot well.

Quinn Kelsey as Don Carlo and Christian Van Horn as Don Ruy Gomez de Silva.

Lyric chorus master Michael Black meticulously prepared the chorus. The wide range of softs and louds and sudden shifts between introverted and extroverted passages lent palpable excitement.

Director Louisa Muller’s staging was clear and effective, with no superfluous activity detracting from the focus. She enthusiastically details some of the non-musical elements in a YouTube video.

The appealing sets added a great deal. Enormous doors in Silva’s castle lent soaring height to the room, and an unseen trap door provided a safe place for Ernani to hide from Carlo. The scene of Charlemagne’s tomb was what it needed to be: dark and creepy.

Joshua Moaney as the Ghost of Ernani’s Father and Russell Thomas as Ernani.

The very effective lighting was done by Duane Schuler. One of my favorite scenes is when Silva ponders his old age, with a long shadow cast against the back wall. Other effects, including shafts of light (sometimes with smoke), added immeasurably to the drama.  

Mazzola’s work in the pit was stellar. When conducting the singers, he was ever attentive to slowing for sustained notes and their concluding passages. But he also moved them forward when the action warranted motion. His direction of the orchestra was always dynamic whether urging the musicians to play even softer, or to exciting them into ever greater animation.

The company of ‘Ernani’ at Lyric Opera of Chicago.