Blast from the Past: Ernani at the Teatro alla Scala

Verdi – Ernani

Ernani – Francesco Meli
Don Carlo – Simone Piazzola
Don Ruy – Ildar Abdrazakov
Elvira – Ailyn Pérez
Giovanna – Daria Chernyi
Don Riccardo – Matteo Desole
Jago – Alessandro Spina

Coro del Teatro alla Scala, Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala /  Ádám Fischer.
Stage director – Sven-Eric Bechtolf

Teatro alla Scala, Milan, Italy.  Saturday, October 13th, 2018.

Verdi’s 1844 opera, Ernani, hasn’t been seen at the Scala since it opened the 1982 – 83 season, in a new production starring Plácido Domingo and Mirella Freni.  It’s a great romp with some rousing choruses with solo numbers that require agility, sensitivity as well as a good legato.  The story is the usual tenor meets soprano, but baritone gets in the way, and the bass does all he can to put a spanner in the works.  For this new staging, confided to Sven-Eric Bechtolf, the house assembled a cast made up of leading Italian and international singers, led by the experienced opera conductor, Ádám Fischer.  I caught the fifth performance of a run of eight.

Photo: © Teatro alla Scala

Bechtolf’s staging harkens back to an earlier era – one where the prima donna walks around as if in a trance, arms outstretched, and artfully falls to the floor when required.  It’s hard to know if Bechtolf is being ironic or whether he’s, in fact, absolutely serious.  I’m still asking myself what the pair of lady dancers were doing, as they gyrated in front of the chorus whenever they were parked on stage.  Was it in fact some kind of post-modern interpretation of what Bechtolf believes the Milanese audience might be looking for?  The principals were similarly parked on stage, delivering their numbers to the front.  Costumes (Kevin Pollard) were very traditional, with long, frilly dresses for the ladies, accessorized with some monumental headdresses.  Indeed, Elvira’s wedding outfit was so magnificently decadent that I have no doubt it would be coveted by the entire line-up of RuPaul’s Drag Race.  The sets (Julian Crouch) were either cardboard or fabric, dropping from the files when required, and blowing excitingly in the wind whenever large groups of people were moved off the stage quickly.

Photo: © Teatro alla Scala

It may well be that Bechtolf felt unable to negotiate the relative absurdity of the plot and figured he would be better off just giving a show.  What we were left with was an evening that focused on the music, one where the singing and orchestral playing had to carry the show.  In one respect it succeeded, in others it felt less successful.

Photo: © Teatro alla Scala

Where it did work was in Ádám Fischer’s sensational conducting.  He led the work in the way that early Verdi really should go – but rarely does.  Tempi were swift, with a strong sense of pulse, attack was crisp, and there were some welcome embellishments to the vocal line in places.  The orchestra played very well for him, absolutely water-tight in ensemble all night.  The chorus sang lustily and enthusiastically in the big Act 3 chorus ‘si ridesti il Leon di Castiglia’.  The house forces most certainly maintained the high expectations of this address.

Photo: © Teatro alla Scala

Where things were more problematic was in the solo singing.  Francesco Meli’s Ernani gave pleasure in his native diction and clarity of text.  When he pulled back on the volume, his slightly nasal tenor was fine.  It does sound like an essentially lyric instrument being made artificially wider, pushing it further than it can naturally go.  The result is a wide beat in the voice, intonation that sits south of the note, and a vocal production that had me fearing in his big opening scene that he wouldn’t last the course.  He pulled back on the tone nicely and gave us some well-judged soft singing.  His embellishments were also satisfying.  That said, the overriding impression I left with was that it was really quite hard going to listen to.

Photo: © Teatro alla Scala

Elvira is a tricky role, requiring both coloratura fluency and the heft to ride the ensemble in the big moments.  Ailyn Pérez is the owner of one of the world’s most beautiful sopranos.  The tone is juicy and full and she capped the ensemble lines gloriously.  She attacked her big Act 1 cavatina ‘Ernani involami’ with enthusiasm.  All the notes where there, but the fullness of her luscious instrument, while magnificent in the later acts, meant that her negotiation of the florid writing sounded somewhat effortful and tuning came in and out of focus.  She certainly sang with spirit to spare and in the later acts did give a great deal of pleasure.

Photo: © Teatro alla Scala

Simone Piazzola sang Don Carlo with dignity.  His somewhat narrow baritone displayed solid musical instincts and he gave us a serviceable account of his music.  His legato is solid, if somewhat aspirated in places.  He sang the opening of Act 3 with poise, long breaths, and generally accurate pitching.  Ildar Abdrazakov gave us a velvety Don Ruy.  His generous bass was used with an impeccable legato, long lines and warm tone in a very satisfying piece of singing.  The remainder of the cast reflected the standards expected of the house.

Photo: © Teatro alla Scala

This was something of a curate’s egg of a performance.  The singing, I must admit, frequently fell short of what one might expect in this legendary theatre.  The staging belonged to a different era – its unwillingness to engage with the story and use the cast to do anything other than stand and deliver, meant that so much depended on a musical performance that was ultimately, not completely convincing.  Yet, paradoxically, I also found it great fun thanks to Fischer’s splendid conducting, giving us an evening that sped by and truly lived with great spirit.  The audience received the cast with a warm ovation – indeed the French couple next to me described the evening as ‘magnifique’.  Perhaps my expectations were set too high, even though the individual performances were generally serviceable and did contain some positive elements.  A mixed evening, then, that didn’t quite live up to its promise.

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