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A visual feast

State Theatre
05/13/2021 -  & May 15, 18, 22, 2021
Giuseppe Verdi: Ernani
Diego Torre (Ernani), Vladimir Stoyanov (Don Carlo, King of Spain), Alexander Vinogradov (Don Ruy Gomez de Silva), Natalie Aroyan (Elvira), Jennifer Black (Giovanna), Simon Kim (Don Riccardo), Luke Gabbedy (Jago)
Opera Australia Chorus, Paul Fitzsimon (Chorus Master), Orchestra Victoria, Carlo Montanaro (Conductor)
Sven-Eric Bechtolf (Director), Liesel Badorrek (Rehearsal Director), Julian Crouch (Scenic Designer), Kevin Pollard (Costume Designer), Marco Filibeck (Lighting Designer), Filippo Marta (Video Designer)

D. Torre, N. Aroyan, A. Vinogradov (© Jeff Busby)

To conclude this short season in which Opera Australia return to Melbourne, Verdi’s Ernani makes a lucid “bookend” in a pair of visual pageants. Immense sets, ornate costumes, an expanded chorus, supernumeries galore and luscious playing from Orchestra Victoria under the baton of Carlo Montanaro made this a sensory feast.

Ernani was the first opera on which the young Verdi collaborated with librettist Francesco Maria Piave in 1844. It was an immediate success and remained the favourite Verdi opera until Il trovatore premiered nine years later. To say that the adaptation of Victor Hugo’s original story became confused in the compositional process is an understatement. Neither composer nor librettist had extensive experience in the theatre and the coherent plot lines of the many operas on which they would later collaborate are missing from Ernani. The action is driven by preposterous coincidences; time lapses further confusing the plot and inexplicable changes of heart, rendering the action of several major characters ludicrous. So the difficulties in producing such a show for modern audiences are enormous.

German director Sven-Eric Bechtolf, has re-imagined the opera as a “play within a play” and we are backstage in a 19th Century theatre, amid the scenery workings and among the stage-hands, cleaners, props personnel and costumiers. We see naively painted back-cloths raised and lowered, two dimensional statuary having its paintwork touched-up and several comic incidents where gormless crew are discovered on-stage during the performance. This aids somewhat in overlooking the deficiencies of the libretto but finally, it is the sumptuous score, packed with memorable tunes offering the opportunity for dazzling singing which captures the audience’s attention.

Kevin Pollard’s costume designs are breath-takingly impressive. He has captured a sense of the grandeur of the tradition of 19th Century operatic productions, juxtaposing thoughtfully against the naïve sets and the comedic elements of the director’s vision. Glorious depictions of romantic medieval court dress are set against two dimensional cut-outs of knights in armour. Stunning embroideries, silks and jewellery are fabulous against the coarse working kit of the stage hands and not-so-cunning disguises reveal hidden splendour and flashing swords in the often ridiculous stage action. This design is a dazzling extravaganza; a riot of colour, form and variety which adds greatly to the impact of the production.

The opportunity for exciting singing is grasped enthusiastically by the principal performers. Natalie Aroyan continues her run as Elvira, transferring with the production from Sydney earlier this year. Hers is a voice made for Verdi’s music. Ranging from fiercely dynamic to delicately subtle, she rises with apparent ease to crystalline upper registers and seamlessly plummets through to the chest voice, leaping between both and dazzling the audience with the suppleness of her vocal line. It is however, in the ensemble passages that we hear the invaluable contribution she makes anchoring the many duets, trios, and expanded episodes; her voice rises radiantly over the massive chorus and other principals in each of the many tableaux.

Diego Torre reprises his role as the titular character and warmed to the occasion after a less smooth opening Act. By the conclusion of the performance, he was in full flight demonstrating a wide-ranging voice, strong in the upper register and powerful in the various group passages. His stage presence was largely static and his movements infrequent. Whether this was a part of the directorial vision or not one can only surmise.

Bulgarian baritone Vladimir Stoyanov is the third of the principal singers to transfer from the Sydney production. This show is his first for Opera Australia and what a great impression he makes. Powerful, nuanced, and clearly articulated, he is a dominant stage presence. His agile movements and authoritative stance captured a portrait of a king not entirely realistic but not completed caricature. His was a great performance, loudly acclaimed by the audience.

Russian bass Alexander Vinogradov is appearing in both this production and Aida in repertory for OA. He moves with grace and ease between roles and asserts himself as a central figure each time he is on stage. His role in this opera in extensive and his many solos were received with loud approbation. Mr Vinogradov’s performance was a highlight of the evening and we can only hope that the company is again able to welcome him to its ranks.

Again the OA Chorus under Chorus Master Paul Fitzsimon gave an outstanding performance. Divided into separate male and female units as often as they sang together, there was a constancy and precision to their reading of the score. The clarity, versatility and superb vocal quality of this Chorus are trademarks of OA and this opera makes rich use of their many talents.

Italian conductor Carlo Montanaro has worked with OA for five years across a variety of operas and composers. He drew from Orchestra Victoria a dynamic and fast-paced performance. From subtle humming of strings and wind to full-throttle romps through Verdi’s “hummable” tunes, he rode the roaring circular crescendos at a break-neck speed and delicately poised the lighter accompaniments with equal authority. The many unaccompanied sections were firmly held together by his tightly governed command of the music.

In presenting two dazzling operatic extravaganzas, Opera Australia has loudly proclaimed “we are back”. From the opening announcements in the theatre to the thunderous applause at the conclusion, there is a tangible sense that theatre, music and art has survived the pandemic and risen above it. Melbourne is returning to “normal”.

Gregory Pritchard



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