Ernani – Opera in four Acts to a libretto by Francesco Maria Piave after Victor Hugo’s Hernani [sung in Italian with Italian and English surtitles]
Ernani – Piero Pretti
Don Carlos – Ernesto Petti
Don Ruy Gomez de Silva – Michele Pertusi
Elvira – Anastasia Bartoli
Giovanna – Rosanna Lo Greco
Don Riccardo – Cristiano Olivieri
Jago – Francesco Milanese
Chorus & Orchestra of La Fenice
Andrea Bernard – Director
Alberto Beltrame – Set Designer
Elena Beccaro – Costume Designer
Marco Alba – Lighting
Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers
Reviewed: 25 March, 2023
Venue: Teatro La Fenice, Venice
Ernani (1844) was the first of several operas commissioned from Verdi by La Fenice (La traviata would be among them) and so a new production, as this by Andrea Bernard, at Venice must inevitably have particular resonance there, despite its being based upon Victor Hugo’s play about an episode in early-sixteenth-century Spanish history. Insofar as there is a setting here, the video projection during the Prelude showing the backstory that drives the plot – Don Carlo’s murder of Ernani’s father, and his burial among some bleak dunes – seems to evoke the sandy islands of the Venetian lagoon as much as anywhere else. And there are some further local details at the opening of Act Four as the guests at the wedding of Ernani and Elvira appear in masks, like at carnival time, and some with the sinister pointed snouts of the plague doctor, reminding us of the pandemics which blighted Venice at several points in its history, as well as very recently around the world at large.
In an otherwise generally abstract vision of the work, with slightly adapted appropriate attire, there is some Spanish colour in the often solemnly dark setting and black costumes of Ernani’s soldiers, as also for the conspirators of Act Three who first appear anonymously in black cloaks, with veiled faces and conical hats like the festivities of a sinister version of an Andalusian hermandad. Architectural Gothic fragments (not specifically Venetian) sometimes descend, nominally to represent Silva’s castle, which Bernard explains follows Ernani’s development from ‘despotic memory…to an elusive and illusory resolution’, though without the benefit of those comments in the programme they could perhaps have been construed in their dispersed arrangement as symbolising the mutually fraught and largely uncooperative relations among the four principals with equal effectiveness.
In this opera, coming immediately after Nabucco and I Lombardi with their narratives of social oppression and big choral set pieces, Ernani is conspicuous in homing in on that complex set of individual relationships among Elvira and the three men who, in their different ways and motives, have fallen in love with her or vie for her hand in marriage. Bernard says that he wants to bring that web of interpersonal connections to the fore, which indeed he does, especially in the often-tense discourse between her and Ernani, given his reputation as a bandit. He also seeks to characterise clearly the underlying psychology of all four, which is efficiently accomplished, above all in Ernani’s case by realising dramaturgically his obsession with vengeance through the representation of his dead father as an angel of death who periodically haunts the stage action (for instance he gives Ernani the horn that will be used to sound the call which will herald the latter’s death, and also crowns Don Carlo as the Holy Roman Emperor, Carlo (Charles) V). That perceptively makes graphic the latent impulse of Verdi’s score, right from the beginning, in opening with a brooding theme associated with Ernani’s oath which then recurs through the work (hovering over it like Monterone’s curse from the outset of Rigoletto).
Nevertheless, the production maintains a palpable sense of the social and historical epic of Verdi’s operatic predecessors with the quite monolithic blocking and ranking of the chorus for considerable stretches of the work, often in static groups. That could be taken for a basic error in stagecraft, but to give it the benefit of the doubt, it does give the impression of wider, implacable forces about which the principal characters can do little (La Fenice’s stage is of considerable size and used to advantage). In that sense Bernard’s exploration of their individual psychologies surely comes out not so much in themselves, but through their sharply delineated contrast with those forces.
Riccardo Frizza also takes a generally bold account of the score, with quite vivid colours in the orchestration, both in the solo and choral sections, but without rushing or hectoring. The chorus make emphatic musical contributions, and not only in the conspirators’ patriotic ‘Si ridesti il leon di Castiglia’ – the invocation of the lion of Castile against the oppressive authority of the Habsburg Carlo implicitly addressed as a rallying call to the Venetians, with their proud emblem of the lion of St Mark, living under the domination of the Habsburg dynasty from Austria at the time of the work’s premiere. With three male voices frequently in prominence, the solo numbers are often shadowy in timbre, though perhaps not as dark as Verdi’s next opera, I due Foscari, the composer always meticulous about the particular tinta he aimed for in each score, and accordingly Frizza sustains a more airily sombre texture than densely black. Particularly memorable is the solo line for bass clarinet at the opening of Act Three to evoke the burial vault of Charlemagne where the conspirators gather to hatch their plot to murder Don Carlo (which Verdi surely bore in mind when composing the similar scenes in the tomb of the latter, now become Carlo V, in the later eponymous opera about his grandson, Don Carlo) here unfurling more with melancholy than threat.
Piero Pretti gives a strenuous performance in the title role, expressing Ernani’s edginess and volatility so much as his amorous ardour for Elvira. Rather it is Ernesto Petti who produces a more suavely lyrical and seemingly romantic lead in the baritone part of Carlo, whose interest in Elvira is as much part of his ambition to become Emperor as any indicating a recognition of her intrinsic qualities, and Petti’s grippingly inward reflection upon his past life and desire to become leader at the beginning of Act Three eloquently bespeaks a versatile, if calculating, personality.
Anastasia Bartoli provides much agility and fire as Elvira, clearly asserting the character’s agency with respect to her three suitors and expressing a certain determination, in her colourfully woven melodic lines but pushing on to powerful climaxes in true spinto fashion. As her ward, the elderly Don Silva, who has designs upon her for himself, Michele Pertusi’s delivery is voluble and well-rounded, rather than heavy or raw. The three other soloists offer sympathetic support without detracting from the dramatic tension which arises from the contrasting musical personalities of the principals. Overall the production navigates the private and public worlds of the narrative seamlessly and soberly, avoiding sensationalism.