Figures of Fate: Ernani at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

Verdi – Ernani

Ernani – Francesco Meli
Don Carlo – Roberto Frontali
Don Ruy Gomez de Silva – Vitalij Kowlajow
Elvira – María José Siri
Giovanna – Xenia Tziouvaras
Don Riccardo – Joseph Dahdah
Jago – Davide Piva

Coro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino / James Conlon.
Stage director – Leo Muscato.

Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Teatro del Maggio, Florence, Italy.  Sunday, November 20th, 2022.

This new production of Ernani formed the central point of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino’s fall season, dedicated to Verdi.  While the theatre of the Maggio is currently being remodelled – to open next month with Don Carlo – the performances of Ernani took place in the Sala Zubin Mehta, part of the handsome complex of the Maggio.  The Sala Mehta is a symphonic hall, though still equipped with a pit, which does limit the technical capacities of the production team. 

Photo: © Michele Monasta

That said, Leo Muscato and his team have given us an extremely vivid and technically proficient staging, which provided us with an evening that had clearly been conceived as a coherent whole, from start to finish.  The sets, by Federica Parolini, consist of a series of wood panel walls that can be pushed around into a number of flexible formations, in order to provide us with differing views on the action.  They also contain a number of doors, through which the chorus was able to emerge in simultaneous formation.  Throughout the evening, shadowy hooded figures were present.  They provided both the ability to manipulate the walls by pushing and pulling them into formation, but also gave us a clue of what was to happen.  Indeed, the significance of these figures became apparent as Silva reappeared at the end, Commendatore-like, surrounded by these figures of fate.  This was a significant strength of Muscato’s staging in that he gave us a coherent theatrical argument from start to finish. 

Photo: © Michele Monasta

The plot of Ernani can certainly be confusing to first-timers, with mortal enemies becoming friends, and then back again.  It’s a shame, then, that my neighbours in the row behind me didn’t stop talking throughout the show, disturbing everyone around them, despite the clarity of Muscato’s storytelling.  Personenregie did contain a considerable amount of standing and delivering, not inappropriate for a bodice-ripping romp such as this.  Yet there was a fluency to Muscato’s direction that worked.  The costumes (Silvia Aymonino) initially looked somewhat California gold rush, but later were more traditional nineteenth-century operatic garb.  As a result, this was an efficient framework for the action that had clearly been thought through and was well rehearsed. 

Photo: © Michele Monasta

Musically, this evening reflected the excellent standards one has come to expect from this house.  The performance was led by James Conlon, one of the most experienced operatic conductors around, and that experience was evident in his superb support of the singers and the flexible elasticity he brought to his tempi.  The cast also added some attractive embellishments to the line as we progressed through the evening.  Conlon’s tempi were founded on that ideal combination of rhythmic propulsion embedded under long, flowing lines.  In the terrifically immediate acoustic of the Sala Mehta, the effect was visceral, overtaking the senses and pulling the listener in – which is why I was so exasperated with the chatty neighbours.  The Maggio orchestra was on tremendous form – the quality of the playing outstanding, absolutely unanimous in sharp attack.  The same goes for the Maggio chorus, prepared by Lorenzo Fratini.  The tenors and basses sang with irresistible lustiness, the energy the communicated was utterly contagious – I was quite tempted to join in with their opening drinking chorus.  It’s a bit of a shame they didn’t encore ‘Si ridesti il Leon di Castiglia’, though, I’d have gladly listened to it a few times over.  The sopranos, mezzos and contraltos, also sang with warm tone and good blend.

Photo: © Michele Monasta

The cast of principals looked extremely promising on paper.  This was my second time hearing Francesco Meli in the title role, having heard him at the Scala a few years ago.  When I saw Meli in Ballo a few months ago, also at the Scala, it struck me that his tone was a lot more solid than on the previous occasions that I had heard him.  Overall, today I had a more positive impression of his singing than previously, reinforcing what I heard back in May this year.  Meli did take a little while to warm up, however.  Initially the vibrations were rather loose and he ducked out of a few unwritten acuti one might have expected him to go for.  As the evening progressed, however, he rallied and sang with much more security and firmness of tone, combined with admirable clarity of diction.

Photo: © Michele Monasta

María José Siri was making her role debut as Elvira with this run.  Hers is a soprano of plush velvet, somewhat soft-grained, but well-schooled and with an admirable technique.  Indeed, she get to really show off her technique in her opening scena, dispatching the intricacies of ‘Tutto sprezzo che d’Ernani’ with studied ease, relishing in the florid sequences, if perhaps without a genuine trill.  She capped the ensembles with uninhibited generosity, blazing out over the choral and orchestral forces.  Siri also had recourse to a full and juicy chestiness, but there was rather an obtrusive break as she passed through the registers.  Still, with her dignified stage presence and generosity of vocalism, there was much to enjoy here.

Photo: © Michele Monasta

Roberto Frontali brought his nobility of line to Don Carlo, giving us a masterclass in long, legato phrasing.  He also used the text fully, spitting out ‘Tu se’ Ernani’ with venomous determination as he recognized his opponent.  The voice does unfortunately tend to greyness at lower dynamics, but Frontali’s ability to spin those long phrases gave so much pleasure.  As indeed did Vitalij Kowaljow as Silva.  He was a massive stage presence, his bass endowed with powerful resonance and a warm, complex tone.  The voice is huge, filling the house with ease, with tone that is both rich and absolutely solid.  In the remainder of the cast, I was particularly impressed by Joseph Dahdah as Don Riccardo.  He revealed a very well-schooled tenor, handsome in tone, with an elegant line.  Undoubtedly a name to watch. 

Photo: © Michele Monasta

This was a splendid afternoon in the theatre.  We were thrilled by a very high quality of singing, superb contributions from the house chorus and orchestra, and conducting of uplifting vitality.  The staging was logical and fluently rehearsed and really did manage to make the most of the technical facilities offered by working in a symphonic hall.  The audience rewarded the cast with a generous ovation – particularly so for Meli.  It was ideal Sunday afternoon entertainment.   

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