Living with the Aftermath: Ernani at Opera Ballet Vlaanderen

Verdi – Ernani

Ernani – Vincenzo Costanzo
Don Carlo – Ernesto Petti
Don Ruy Gomez de Silva – Andreas Bauer Kanabas
Elvira – Leah Gordon
Giovanna – Elisa Soster
Don Riccardo – Dejan Toshev
Jago – Thierry Vallier

Koor Opera Vlaanderen, Symfonisch Orkest Opera Ballet Vlaanderen / Julia Jones.
Stage director –
Barbora Horáková Joly.

Opera Ballet Vlaanderen, Antwerp, Flanders, Belgium.  Friday, December 16th, 2022.

Tonight, marked the premiere of Opera Ballet Vlaanderen’s new production of Ernani.  For it, the house invited Barbora Horáková Joly, one of the most exciting young stage directors before the public today, alongside an equally youthful cast, many of whom were making role debuts.  Having only seen Ernani a few weeks ago in a rather traditional but musically superb staging at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, there’s a danger in seeing the same work within weeks – however we may not wish to make comparisons, the need can often feel inevitable.

Photo: © Annemie Augustijns

Certainly, Horáková Joly’s staging is as far from Leo Muscato’s Florentine one as it’s possible to get.  In a note in the program book, Horáková Joly mentions finding this a work that was very difficult to get into, particularly as she found the titular character so unsympathetic.  Her answer to this, was to interject dialogue, spoken in the Netherlandic tongue, written by Peter Verhelst and intoned by actor Johan Leysen, ostensibly to give the work a helping hand. 

Photo: © Annemie Augustijns

Horáková Joly gives us an insight into a man suffering from PTSD, carrying the weight of his life around with him.  She makes this very much Ernani’s story, with the non-principal characters unnamed in the program book and described only by voice type, and focuses her drama on the three men and their love interest.  It’s true that Horáková Joly’s staging is highly visual and the work of a vivid theatrical imagination.  Leah Gordon’s Elvira made her entrance by being hoisted down from the flies, and later was compartmentalized outfitted in a red shift, gyrating within a box filled with flowers – presumably making a point of how she was in turn compartmentalized by Ernani in his mental world.  War is ever-present in Horáková Joly’s staging, with video (Tabea Rothfuchs) sharing images of soldiers projected onto the front of the stage and on the backdrop.  Many congratulations are due to the props team at OBV for managing to create a very life-like beating heart that was a present aspect of the final scene.  Similarly, the shadowy figures incarnated by the chorus in the opening scene, made the drinking song a lot more threatening than suggested by the music, as if figures from Ernani’s mind coming into focus for him and for us.  Certainly for me, the most striking image of the evening was Vincenzo Costanzo’s Ernani and Ernesto Petti’s Don Carlos, squaring off against each other just before the chorus sang ‘si ridesti il leon di Castiglia’, the two men staring into each other’s eyes while bare-chested, unsure if we were going to see them make out or fight each other, the latter which they then did as the chorus sang that celebrated number.  The homoeroticism of that moment was absolutely tangible.

Photo: © Annemie Augustijns

And yet, in a number of other areas, Horáková Joly’s staging contains significant issues.  I’m still wondering what the perambulating danseuse carrying fruit around the set was doing.  Or indeed why Elvira was accosted by chorus members brandishing fruit.  Similarly, I still wonder why Elvira was parked open-mouthed at the front while the chorus ran around her.  Horáková Joly gives us lots of imagery, the significance of which isn’t always clear and distracts from the narrative.  In many ways, her staging also feels rather déjà vu.  Having Elvira and Ernani in two separate boxes on stage, Ernani sitting in his study, while Elvira does the dishes in her cuisine, either represents a nod to, or was simply plagiarized from Calixto Bieito’s Vienna Tristan.  The relatively bare set, with bright lights, also seem derivative of Bieito, perhaps understandably so since Horáková Joly has worked closely with the great Catalan director.  The addition of the spoken texts felt superfluous, holding up the drama and not adding much in terms of insight – as the evening proceeded, they become tiresome.  It felt that, as a result, Horáková Joly was unwilling to either trust the work or believe in her own concept which could have been just as powerful by trimming back on the imagery, focusing on the direction of the singers, and illustrating Verdi’s deliciously rousing score, without constantly having to stop it to allow an actor to ruminate.

Photo: © Annemie Augustijns

It’s true that the principals, and indeed Julia Jones in the pit, were absolutely on board with the production and it had clearly been fully and fluently rehearsed.  Jones kept the musical side of things together, with playing and singing from the house forces of striking unanimity and precision of approach – impressively so for a first night.  It did feel, however, that attack was rather soft-grained.  Jones’ reading felt more of velvet than the blistering and utterly uplifting steel that James Conlon gave us in Florence.  Her tempi felt earthbound, despite the rhythmic precision she obtained from the orchestra, and in the later acts, they had a tendency to sag, losing forward momentum and not helped by the insertion of the spoken texts.  The quality of the orchestral playing was outstanding – string intonation was true, we got some characterful and eloquent wind playing, and the brass was solid all night.  The chorus, prepared by Jef Smits, sang with wonderful unanimity of tone, finding a beauty in Verdi’s writing that could only be obtained with singing of such impeccable intonation and blend.

Photo: © Annemie Augustijns

I was introduced to Constanzo’s tenor as Ismaele in Palermo back at the end of October, and then I remarked he would be a pleasure to hear in the lighter Verdi roles.  Ernani is much beefier than that and tonight was a role debut for the Neapolitan tenor.  He sang with genuine Italianate beauty of tone, caressing the text, and gave absolutely everything to Horáková Joly’s staging.  That said, to my ears, the role sounds like a size too big for Constanzo’s current vocal means.  The voice is narrow and focused, but the top was frequently under pressure with vibrations loosening.  Constanzo rallied, and made it through the evening by clearly focusing the tone and exploiting his impeccable legato.  There’s no doubt that he’s a singer with a very special vocal gift and I would hope that he continues to focus those gifts in a way that will ensure career longevity – because it is a very special sound.

Photo: © Annemie Augustijns

Gordon was an enthusiastic Elvira.  In a highly challenging assignment, she went for it, driving through the registers with intent.  The gear changes were audible but Gordon made a real attempt to give us some stylish, and musically-focused singing.  Singing a number as challenging as her opening scene while being suspended from the air, is definitely not for the faint hearted and she made a very creditable attempt at a trill in the process.  Her Italian is rather Anglophone in flavour, but Gordon does focus hard on spinning those long, flowing lines.  The top does rather lack in amplitude, rather than blooming, it seems to taper out, and intonation came in and out of focus, not always landing on the pitch she was aiming for.  Still, Gordon’s sheer enthusiasm and willingness to sing stylishly gave her performance an exciting edge.

Photo: © Annemie Augustijns

Petti was an admirable Don Carlos.  In his mid-30s, he’s likely at the stage in his career where he’s looking to take on these bigger assignments.  What Petti does have is wonderfully instinctive musicality and an implicit understanding of how this music should go.  His legato is, as of yet, rather intrusively aspirated, but he knows how to shape the lines.  The top is impressive, so easily produced and so firm up there, and Petti is also capable of making a big column of sound that penetrates easily into the theatre.  An unfinished artist, perhaps, but one with significant promise.  Andreas Bauer Kanabas sang Silva in his warm, richly rounded bass.  He gave us an impeccably smooth legato and dug deep into the text to find meaning.  Most satisfying. 

Photo: © Annemie Augustijns

Ultimately, this was a rather mixed evening.  The house forces gave us the exceptionally high quality we have come to expect at this address, and the principals showed enormous dedication to the staging.  Horáková Joly’s production left me rather cold.  There was a lot that was good there, but it felt like a succession of images that didn’t always cohere, and the addition of the dialogues robbed the evening of the pace it really needed, not helped by Jones’ focus on some rather saggy tempi towards the end.  I left wishing that Horáková Joly had focused more on driving her concept through the principals, who were all superb actors.  Still, it’s worth seeing to see a notable directorial talent at the start of her career.  The evening was received with polite applause from the Antwerp audience.

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