Teatro Alla La Scala 2018-19 Review: Ernani

Ildar Abdrazakov Conjures Up A Star Turn In Sloppy Production of Verdi’s Out-of-Touch Classic

By Alan Neilson

The last time “Ernani” was presented at La Scala was during the 1982-83 season, starring Plácido Domingo and Mirella Freni, and conducted by Riccardo Muti. Given that it has a claim for being Verdi’s finest opera from his early period, 36 years between productions is a long time.

Yet this should not come as a surprise for “Ernani” has suffered a dramatic decline in popularity over the period. Worldwide there are only two productions currently scheduled for the period starting October 2018 and ending October 2019, of which this production at La Scala is one; the other is in Olomouc in the Czech Republic.

This, of course, begs the question as to why. Certainly, it is not the music. The score positively bristles with energy, it is full of rousing melodies for soloists and the chorus, and has plenty of opportunities for star singers to showcase their vocal talents.

Nor can the finger be pointed at the drama itself, which is a swashbuckling, fast-moving affair with kidnapping and intrigue, love and vengeance. One can easily imagine Errol Flynn in the title role.

Out of Touch

Yet, its popularity has certainly waned. One possible reason is that the narrative is premised on a chivalric code, which if it ever existed, has now been relegated to the position of legend, of King Arthur and his Knights of the Roundtable, of damsels in distress waiting for their knight in shining armor and where a man’s word is binding. All of which sits very uncomfortably in an age in which a person’s dignity counts for very little.

Today’s television ratings are topped by reality programmes, in which the contestants positively delight in their undignified behavior. Politicians and celebrities are often caught indulging in embarrassing behavior or, worse, proudly boasting about it. And even if the majority look on with disgust, we have all become tarnished, so that we have now become too cynical.

We can no longer accept Ernani responding to Silva’s call to kill himself on his wedding day, or Silva hiding his enemy in his castle, even though he has gained entrance through deception, simply to maintain their honor.

Moreover, in true romantic style, the passions of the characters are allowed a free reign, every sleight is raged against, vengeance is the only solution, love is of an-all-nothing intensity, and so on. It is an emotional riot, yet it is all predicated on a redundant moral code of honor, and it does not fit well with the 21st century mindset.

It was a problem of which the director, Sven-Eric Bechtolf, seemed fully aware, stating in the programme notes that “if one presents it with a certain amount of irony, maybe it suddenly becomes acceptable.” He, therefore, set out to create a story, not a reality.

Opera Within An Opera…

In order to achieve this, he decided to present “Ernani” as a performance in a theatre, as after all, in a theatre everything is possible. So it is that the curtain rises at the beginning of Act one to a stage in which the stagehands are preparing for the show; they turn the wheels to lower the scenery, roll on the props and generally prepare the stage, whilst the chorus members busy themselves, getting ready for the opening chorus.

Throughout the performance, deliberate glimpses of the stagehands are seen operating pulleys or simply watching the opera. At one point they burst into applause. As the curtain rises following the interval, members of the cast are seen chatting with operatives as they wait to start. At the beginning of Act four, two dancing girls in Parisian cabaret costumes appear, and provide a little entertainment. The problem was, of course, it was all so marginal, the dramatic impact was either negligible or just simply negative, but it was always irritating. The opera, which has now become an opera within the opera, was so dominant that Bechtolf’s ideas came across as clumsy at best.

Worse still was the fact that the staged theatre was set in the 19th century, with stage machinery consisting of wooden wheels, pulleys, and sets of the most basic design, which often made its staging of “Ernani” appear cheap, shoddy and crude. It mattered very little that the audience was supposed to be watching an old performance from years gone by because the idea did not translate into practice. The ironic story, which Bechtolf sought as means of rescuing the work, failed to establish itself with any significance and left us with an unsatisfying spectacle.

Yet, it was not a complete disaster.

To an extent, the production was rescued by the superb lighting of Marco Filibeck, who brought real depth and color to the stage. In this, he was supported by the costume designer, Kevin Pollard, whose traditional designs were flamboyant, colorful and convincing. Even the scenographer, Julian Crouch, operating within narrow parameters, managed to save certain scenes. The result was that a number of the mise-en-scene were powerfully presented, aided in no small part by some fine choreography from Laura Montanaro, notwithstanding the irritating shuffling around by the chorus during Act one, which was possibly a deliberate decision to give the work a further ironic twist.

A Swashbuckling Hero

On the musical side, things had a more consistent quality. In the title role was the tenor who, at the moment, seems to be in demand from theatres throughout Italy, Francesco Meli.

He gave a swashbuckling portrayal of Ernani; he was a brave and courageous adversary, an ardent and tender lover and an ‘honorable’ bandit, yet managed to stop just short of caricature.

From his opening cavatina, “Come rugiada al cespite,” Meli gave a full-blooded, emotional performance. Always singing with freedom, his sweet-toned lyrical voice moving easily across the range, his phrasing delicately crafted, with a clear articulation, he was a convincing Ernani. He sang each aria and ensemble with passion and skill. In his first cabaletta “O tu, che l’alma adora,” he marvellously captured Ernani’s desire to see Elvira again, his voice dancing up and down the scale, his impatience clearly in evidence. In the short trio with Elvira and Carlo, “Tu sei, Ernani!” the three voices combine; Carlo’s contempt for Ernani, the bandit, is all too clear, which adds to Ernani’s hatred, Meli energetically punching out his lines in defiance and a desire for vengeance, while Elvira tries to stop them. It was excellently sung by the three soloists, their different emotional states distinctly defined.

On the negative side, however, Meli often sings with a little too much vibrato, and while it is clear that he has no problems singing forte or fortissimo, his interpretation would certainly benefit from giving more consideration to vocal dynamics.

Star of the Show

It was Ildar Abdrazakov, playing the role of Silva, who produced the most impressive performance of the evening. He brought a dignified nobility to the character, his voice brimming with authority, certainty and determination, but at the same time there was always an undercurrent of vicious egoism and self-importance, which added a sinister aspect to his portrayal.

He possesses a wonderfully colorful and resonant bass, which he used intelligently to create a very expressive reading. His aria “Infelice!… e tuo credevi” in which he sings of his love for Elvira was delivered with great sensitivity, his inner pain palpable. It was a splendidly nuanced singing and acting performance.

A Story of Contrasts

Donna Elvira was played by the soprano, Ailyn Perez, who gave a solid if occasionally uneven performance. She brought sufficient passion to the part, portraying Elvira as an emotional, proud, young woman, full of youthful ardor. She has a strong, agile soprano and was most effective in the cabaletta, “Tutto sprezzo che d’Ernani” in which she showed off her sparkling vocal dexterity, coloring and power, and in the ensemble pieces, such as in the duet with Ernani “No, vendetta più tremenda,” her voice complementing and matching Meli’s powerful tenor, and soaring above the orchestra with apparent ease.

Conversely, her interpretation at times lacked a degree of finesse, her legato not always even.

Luca Salsi, as the King, Don Carlo, has recently been acclaimed for his excellent portrayals in a number of roles, including Gérard, from “Andrea Chénier,” at La Scala, Rodrigo in Verdi’s “Don Carlo” in Bologna, and more recently as Macbeth in Parma.

Unfortunately, he didn’t convince on this occasion, his interpretation of Don Carlo lacking the requisite gravitas and nobility. Although he showed evidence of his undoubted quality, his singing did not possess the necessary subtlety and consistency.

His baritone has an attractive warm timbre, and his vocal flexibility, vocal strength and expressivity were all occasionally in evidence, but this was an interpretation rendered in thick brush strokes and lacked refinement.

The minor roles were all well cast: Matteo Desole and Alessandro Spina made good impressions in the roles of Don Riccardo and Jago. It was Daria Chernyi, a student from the Accademia Teatro alla Scala, however, in the role of Giovanna who really caught the eye, managing to flesh out the character beyond what would have been expected from such a small role.

Adam Fischer elicited an energetic and forceful rendition from the Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala, in which he successfully highlighted the dynamic and rhythmic contrasts, and captured perfectly the arching melodic lines of the score. He maintained a lively pace throughout the evening, which allowed the full sound of the orchestra to sweep along the onstage drama.

The Coro del Teatro alla Scala, under the direction of the chorus master, Bruno Casoni, produced a powerfully energetic performance.

Overall, Bechtolf’s decision to deal with the problems in staging “Ernani” for a 21st audience was a bold step, but one for which he, unfortunately, failed to find a convincing solution. Musically, however, the orchestra produced an energetic performance, which was taken up by the singers, creating an engaging presentation, albeit with a certain degree of unevenness.


ReviewsStage Reviews