The Met brews up a production of ‘Ernani’ that’s about 97-percent caffeine free
But conductor Marco Armiliato’s lackluster rendition of Verdi’s passionate score suggests he could have used a double shot of espresso
Perhaps the plot of Verdi’s fifth opera and early hit Ernani appealed to his audience in 1844. But in 2012, this tale of a woman pursued by three men, ending in a double suicide, is tough to embrace.
I saw this live Met HD performance with a young operagoer who had attended Wagner’s Gotterdammerung two weeks earlier. She found that its six hours seemed considerably shorter than Ernani’s three and a half. She is perceptive.
The four principals are Elvira, who is in love with the depressed rebel Ernani; King Charles of Spain, who lusts after both Elvira and the post of Holy Roman Emperor; and the nobleman Silva, who is Elvira’s aged uncle and her third suitor. Not one is remotely believable as a flesh-and-blood character. So Verdi’s youthful, hot-blooded, tuneful music must make the opera’s case.
It can, under the right circumstances. Just listen to a recording of the Met’s matinée broadcast from April 10, 1965 with Franco Corelli as Ernani and Leontyne Price as Elivra, Thomas Schippers conducting. The performance oozes passion. Schippers has the pedal to the metal, and the singers are clearly feeding off each other and the energy of the audience.
This Ernani, however, was led by Marco Armiliato. He has proven to be a reliable conductor of Italian opera at the Met, but Ernani requires much more if it’s going to succeed. (The premier of this production, in 1983, was led by James Levine. Enough said).
Armiliato began with a limp prelude lacking in menace. The chorus of bandits who set the scene in the mountains did not rock, as the music suggests. Ernani’s opening aria was cautious, perhaps because tenor Marcello Giordani was tentative. This was followed by one of Elvira’s big moments, Ernani involami,and while Angela Meade delivered it expertly, it made little impression. Time and again when Armiliato should have been setting the house on fire with his tempi or urging the singers to go for broke in their cabalettas, he was polite and dull.
The opera has many pre-echos of Rigoletto and a conspiracy scene (picking names from a hat) that turns up again in A Masked Ball. Already Verdi is magically transforming duets into trios and trios into quartets. The large chorus of soldiers, bandits, and courtiers has a lot to do. Characters confront each other at every turn, daggers drawn, passions raw. But Armiliato seemed embarrassed by Verdi’s energy, toning it down repeatedly.
The production, almost 30 years old, is far from the aesthetic that the current Met boss, Peter Gelb, prefers. There are no video projections and no effort to make the story relevant or modern. Director Pier Luigi Samaritani set the piece where it belongs, in Spain and the Aachen Cathedral in 1519. The sets are enormous and require all the strength the stagehands can muster to wrestle them into position. A sweeping stone staircase is the chief architectural feature. It dominates Silva’s castle in Acts One and Two, winds around the tomb of Charlemagne in Aachen in Act Three, and appears in Ernani’s castle in Aragon in the final scene.
The prevailing color is black, perhaps because there was no electricity in the 16th-century, or apparently even daylight. The only exception to the murky color scheme is Elvira’s apartment within Silva’s castle in Act One.
The lush costumes, designed by Peter J. Hall, provide what relief there is from stage pictures that look like faded Old Master paintings under three coats of varnish. Pride of place goes to an exceptional cloak of wine red and gold for King Charles. Baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky wore it proudly, standing on that staircase next to the statue of Charlemagne atop his tomb. In the theater, the movie screen was entirely black except for Hvorostovsky with his trademark flowing mane of white hair (no wigs for him), and that cape. It was the most arresting image from the HD production.
The interaction amongst the characters was almost non-existent. It might as well have been a concert performance in costume. There was little chemistry between Ernani and Elvira, despite the fact that each chose to die for the other. Perhaps this lack of direction is natural given the age of the production and the distance from Samaritani’s initial conception of the piece (Samaritani died in 1994).
In these circumstances, the excellent cast did what it could to salvage the afternoon, and that was quite a lot. At the premier in 1983, the Met offered Luciano Pavarotti as Ernani, Sherrill Milnes as King Charles, Ruggero Raimondi as Silva, and Leona Mitchell as Elvira. With the exception of tenor Giordani, who could not compare to Pavarotti (who could, except perhaps Corelli?), the others held their own by comparison, and then some.
Angela Meade, at the start of what should be a glorious opera career, made her debut in this role in March of 2008 when she substituted for an indisposed colleague. The host for the HD telecast, mezzo Joyce DiDonato, compared her to a young Joan Sutherland. We shall see. Still, Meade he has a voice of sufficient power and beauty to handle the big Verdi soprano roles. She also has the agility for bel canto roles. I can imagine her in everything from Mozart to Strauss. She sang a bit sharp at times, but otherwise Meade displayed a memorable voice of middling weight with a secure top and an excellent trill.
Veteran bass Ferruccio Furlanetto is the perfect Silva. His angular, craggy face projects evil intent. His voice is still in great shape. He never resorts to barking. His sorrowful singing in Act One when he discovers Elvira in the company of not one but two rivals in his own castle was moving.
The role of King Charles fits Hvorostovsky’s baritone like the wine red and gold cloak. Two of his arias lay on the high side, which is his strength. While he sometimes has difficulty projecting in a house the size of the Met, on HD he was ideal. His aria in Act Three in Aachen, when he laments the way he has led his life, was moving and beautifully delivered. He confirmed his status as a leading Verdi baritone.
Giordani is an unpredictable singer, and not just from opera to opera, but within an afternoon. His voice lacks the liquid beauty of Bergonzi, the sweetness of Pavarotti, or the trumpet-like ring of Corelli. Occasionally he projects the squillo quality that cuts through the orchestra, but this is a bel canto opera and his singing is no longer so beautiful. He sings a lot of varied repertoire, and it’s taken a toll. He started tentatively but warmed up as the afternoon proceeded. His suicide was moving. Overall he offered a decent account of the role.
My student companion said that this Ernani would have been more rewarding for her if she had heard it first on CD. No plot, no set. All she needed was the hot-blooded music and a more incisive conductor to light the fire. I’ll give her that Schippers matinée performance.
What: Verdi’s Ernani, Simulcast Live in HD
When: February 25, 2012
Who: Metropolitan Opera
Running time: Approximately 3 hours and 50 minutes
Where: Metropolitan Opera House, New York
Encore performance: March 14, 2012 at 6:30 pm EST
Where: Metropolitan Opera House, New York