Chicago Opera Review: ERNANI (Lyric Opera of Chicago)

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by Barnaby Hughes on September 16, 2022

in Music,Theater-Chicago


Ernani is billed as the second installment in Lyric Opera’s early Verdi series, which began with Luisa Miller in 2019-20. This, despite a production of Nabucco in 2016, which is earlier than both Ernani and Luisa Miller. No matter. Ernani contains some very beautiful music that deserves to be better known on its own merits and not just because of where it is situated in the composer’s musical development. This is particularly true of the haunting woodwinds at the beginning of Act Three. As a drama, however, it is not so compelling. Despite the excellence of this production, Ernani cannot be recommended wholly and without reservation.


Based on Victor Hugo’s 1830 historical play Hernani, Verdi’s opera premiered in 1844 at La Fenice in Venice. I haven’t seen Hugo’s play, but it doesn’t take much imagination to guess how much of it librettist Francesco Maria Piave had to truncate to make the relatively compact opera that Verdi desired. The result is a bit convoluted; its mise-en-scène alone jumps from Spain to Germany and back. Surrounding the 1519 coronation of King Carlos of Spain as Holy Roman Emperor Charles V is a tragic love story centered on Elvira and our eponymous hero. Don Carlo and Don Silva also wish to marry Elvira, but Don Carlos has a change of heart following his coronation and allows Ernani to marry Elvira. As the result of Don Silva earlier challenging him to a duel, however, Ernani is forced to commit suicide on his wedding day.


In addition to the central love story are political plots that made the opera dangerous to stage. Besides competing for the love of Elvira, Don Silva was determined to assassinate Don Carlos in order to prevent him from becoming emperor. We soon learn that Ernani, participating in Don Silva’s plot, is not the brigand he has pretended to be, but a disgraced noble who desires revenge on the king for killing Ernani’s father and taking his land. Director Luisa Muller cryptically alludes to this earlier death during the opera’s brief prelude. (I didn’t understand that this was what I was watching until I read the director’s notes in the program.)


Ernani features a solid cast that includes some very familiar faces. Three of the four principal roles are played by tenor Russell Thomas (Ernani), baritone Quinn Kelsey (Don Carlo), and bass Christian Van Horn (Don Silva), who have performed a combined total of forty roles at Lyric. As with last season’s Tosca, the forty-four-year-old Thomas seems old and tired. He sings energetically and expressively when it really counts, as in his Act One and Four arias, but in Acts Two and Three he holds back and is sometimes drowned out by the other principals. Kelsey, however, has been growing on me because of the clarity and power of his voice, even though not terribly elegant. Tamara Wilson (Elvira) has been seen once before at Lyric as Leonora in Il Trovatore (2018-19); her soprano is surprisingly light and lithe, as in her Act One aria “Ernani, Ernani involami.”


Scott Marr’s set and costume designs are mostly adequate and evocative, but they are neither historically accurate nor particularly beautiful. Perhaps most jarring for this viewer was the procession of mitred bishops at the coronation. Instead of wearing copes, these bishops were wearing the dalmatics of deacons, which is completely wrong. My comments on Louisa Muller’s direction in Tosca last season are just as true for Ernani: “She goes all in for processions and ritual, especially of the ecclesiastical and martial kind, but fails to get the details right.”


While this Ernani production was last performed at Lyric in 2009/10, it feels neither fresh nor dated — just meh. Moreover, it’s an odd choice to open the season with an old production. It might please diehard Verdi fans, but this Ernani is not likely to gain the opera a wider following. We’ll see if this season’s upcoming production of Verdi’s Don Carlo fares any better. In the meantime, we have not one, but two musicals to look forward to, beginning with Fiddler on the Roof.


photos by Cory Weaver courtesy of Lyric Opera

Lyric Opera of Chicago
Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive
ends on October 1, 2022
for tickets, call 312.332.2244 or visit Lyric Opera

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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