Verdi – Ernani
Ernani – Gregory Kunde
Don Carlo – Simone Piazzola
Don Ruy Gomez de Silva – Fabrizio Beggi
Elvira – He Hui
Giovanna – Rita Marques
Don Riccardo – Sérgio Martins
Jago – João Oliveira
Coro do Teatro Nacional de São Carlos, Orquestra Sinfónica Portuguesa / Antonio Pirolli.
Teatro Nacional de São Carlos, Lisbon, Portugal. Wednesday, June 16th, 2021.
Perhaps fittingly, tonight’s concert performance of Ernani marked 8 months to the day since my previous visit to the venerable Teatro Nacional de São Carlos, on that occasion for a concert performance of La Wally. We have been starved of live music over the intervening months, but how better to get back into this glorious art form than with a tremendous early Verdi romp.
The house has assembled an international cast for this, its final opera of the season. I caught the second of four performances, with the others taking place on Friday and Sunday. Of course, measures had to be taken in order to comply with the current sanitary restrictions in place. The principals sang from music stands at the front, keeping distance from each other, expressing their love, anger and various other emotions to their correspondents on the other side of the stage. Naturally, there was a fair bit of standing and delivering as a result; but the music and the singing is what brought us here tonight, and in this wonderful acoustic it was certainly very, very loud. The excellent house chorus was positioned on a four-storey structure at the back of the stage, singing from behind plastic sheeting. From my seat in the Plateia, balance wasn’t always optional – I suspect it would have sounded better higher up. But, given the circumstances, this was the best we could hope for, and it contributed to keeping the assembled forces safe.
The set-up for the chorus must have made it exceptionally difficult for them to hear their fellow choristers and the orchestra. However, it was not apparent from the immaculate unanimity of approach and water-tight ensemble that they produced all night – and this at some deliciously brisk tempi. The sound was exceptionally well-blended, and the gentlemen sang their big ‘si ridesti il leon di Castiglia’ most lustily. Tuning, in some treacherous unaccompanied passages, was absolutely spot-on. They had clearly been fully prepared by Giampaolo Vessella. Similarly, the house orchestra was on splendid form for Antonio Pirolli – strings were immaculately tuned, there was some characterful woodwind playing, and the brass were solid throughout the evening. Pirolli’s conducing was superb. He combined that ideal blend of long lyrical lines over a foundation of rhythmic precision that showed how much Verdi owed to bel canto. Tempi were swift and well-chosen, and the unanimity of approach and precision of the orchestral playing and choral singing he elicited was seriously impressive – again, particularly given the restrictions imposed by the stage set-up.
The singing from the principals was undoubtedly exciting – the visceral impact of hearing some big voices going for it after months of famine was undeniable. He Hui’s Elvira was a force of nature. This was not subtle singing by any means. Her no holds barred performance definitely held no prisoners. She got through her big opening set piece with sheer determination, the coloratura sketchy and she generally landed around the pitch she was aiming for. It’s a big, resonant and rounded voice and, as a long-time resident of Italy, she showed great affinity for the language. She rode the ensembles with ease, filling the house with full-blooded tone – but again, the voice tended to sit around the note rather than on it. Refined singing this most certainly wasn’t, but the audience enjoyed her – and she was definitely good value.
Gregory Kunde brought a lifetime of experience to the title role. He was in good voice tonight and his affinity with the style displayed that kind of implicit musicality that cannot be taught. He filled the house with his easy cutting power, the voice focused and penetrating. It’s impossible to deny now the passage of the years in Kunde’s voice. For a 67-year old the quality of production is staggering, vibrations even and the top emerged with trumpeting ease. And yet, one is more acutely aware of the heavy lifting required to sustain the legato on high, the line more aspirated now, and the tone lacking in body at lower dynamics, taking on a sandy quality. That said, Kunde could sing tenors half his age under the table and getting the kind of masterclass in stylistic understanding and vocal technique and longevity is priceless.
Simone Piazzola brought his now familiar Don Carlo to the São Carlos. This was my third encounter with him in the role, having seen him live at the Scala and streamed from Palermo. His native diction gave a great deal of pleasure, he really savoured the words and made a genuine attempt to colour the text. He also has an implicit understanding of how this music should go, and his stage experience in the role meant that he worked hard to inject genuine feeling and emotion into his interpretation in this concert setting. And yet, the technique still sounds unfinished. The tone is bright and forward but sounds not quite fully supported. Rather than giving us a column of sound, connected from top to bottom, the production itself sounded tense. Consequently, the very top tended to discolour, while intonation came in and out of focus. Piazzola worked extremely hard to cultivate those long, Verdian lines, however, and his legato was generally even.
Fabrizio Beggi was a major discovery as Silva. The Italian bass is the owner of a very handsome instrument. Even in his most animated music never succumbed to hectoring, singing everything in long, velvety lines, while bringing out the full meaning of the text. The sound is warm and generous descending to a full and resonant bottom. Most impressive. The remainder of the cast represented the high standards one has come to expect at this address – notably Rita Marques as Giovanna, singing with an aristocratic line and leading one to hope we might hear her in the prima donna role one day.
This was undoubtedly an exciting evening, full of full-blooded singing and generosity of spirit. We were given some engaging no-holds-barred performances from the principals, who clearly relished being in front of a live audience again. That said, what will stay with me from tonight was the quality of the house forces, Beggi’s Silva and Pirolli’s conducting. That the chorus and orchestra were able to give us singing and playing of such precision in the most difficult acoustical circumstances is testament to their discipline and training. Most impressive.