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Pocket Ernani Features Vivid Performances

San Francisco
Pocket Opera
02/21/1999 -  and 27 February 1999
Giuseppe Verdi : Ernani
Michael Licciardello (Ernani), Ralph Wells (Don Carlo), Leland Shanley Morine (Don Ruy Gomez de Silva), Elin Carlson (Elvira), Christine Maxcomber (Giovanna), Mark D. Lew (Don Riccardo), Michael Nurge (Jago)
Pocket Philharmonic; Donald Pippin (Conductor)
Andrew Morgan, (Director)

When a company such as Donald Pippin’s Pocket Opera presents a work like Verdi’s Ernani, the result is a mixed blessing. On one hand, it is a joy to hear this rarely performed masterpiece and the performances by cast and orchestra members provided a satisfying degree of style and substance. On the other hand, with the reduced forces at the company’s disposal, the power and sweep of Verdi’s score could only be partially realized.

But one doesn’t go to Pocket Opera to experience the grandeur and expansive qualities that opera can provide. Rather, one goes to have a more intimate, personal experience with opera and see some outstanding local talent in repertory more varied than in many venues. And that is exactly what Ernani had to offer in this, the first production of the company’s 1999 season.

On of Pippin’s aims in creating Pocket Opera has been to make opera as accessible as possible for everyone. To that end, not only does he create his own English translations of virtually every opera the company has performed, but he also provides a narration that is at once thoroughly informative and delightfully droll. The quality of the narration offsets the frustration of having the momentum of some scenes interrupted with the next segment of narration.

As for the translations, they can at times be way to cutesy, but for the most part sound highly singable and match the melodic contours admirably. For this production of Ernani, the cast all managed highly comprehensible diction making the text easily understandable and enjoyable.

Ernani provides ample opportunity for the four principals to display both their dramatic and vocal gifts in a story twisted around inflexible concepts of honor and duty. In this case, the traditional love-triangle is expanded and all three male leads vie for the hand of Elvira. Ernani, the outlawed nobleman reduced to banditry; Don Ruy Gomez de Silva, Elvira’s guardian and unwelcome prospective husband, and Don Carlo, the King of Spain and future Holy Roman Emperor; and Elvira, the object of their obsession, all have impressive, demanding arias as well as various duets, trios and ensembles.

Each of the principals brought a welcome array of strengths to the production. In the title role, Michael Licciardello’s clear ringing top and impassioned phrasing caught the sweep and ardor of Verdi’s vocal line and he played the role with the kind of utter conviction to make plausible the character’s single-mindedness.

Elin Carlson, a tall woman who carries herself with great grace and presence, presented an Elvira of determination and assurance. Vocally her strengths included a strong, free top, easy and cleanly articulated coloratura and intelligent use of chest tones. The middle voice lacks the fullness of tone needed to be fully expressive, but Carlson’s fearless attack and secure phrasing compensated. In the cabaletta to her "Ernani involami" (here "Ernani, Oh, rescue me"), not only did she take the repeat as was the case with the other cabalettas in this production, but she embellished the already florid vocal line.

Ralph Wells’ best vocal feature is his top range which remains robust and full to the top. Lower down he tends to allow the placement to slip back and loose focus, but in the top and upper middle range where Verdi placed so many key phrases, Wells soared with authority and power. As an actor, Wells sometimes failed to convey the regal presence of the king and gave a generalized interpretation, losing, for instance, the cruel sarcasm of "Vieni meco, sol di rose" (in translation, "On a pathway strewn with roses").

Leland Shanley Morine was a highly individualized, well rounded Don Ruy Gomez de Silva, though more convincing in his "Infelice! e tuo credevi" (here "Foolish Dreamer! A True Believer!") where he created a sympathetic portrait than in the grim implacability of the later scenes. Morine used his attractive lyric bass intelligently, with a clear focus and smooth support.

The staging by Andrew Morgan allowed the singers to concentrate on the music and characters within the framework of a simple, unfussy production. Cynthia Quiroga’s costumes ranged from full period costumes for some of the principals to simple modern dress simply accessorized for the chorus.

Judging from Pocket Opera’s repertory, Ernani is one of the heavier, bigger operas in its repertory and as such exposes the company’s weaknesses more than most of its repertory. Even so, the musical and theatrical pleasures easily outweighed the shortcomings and Ernani came off as a successful start to the new season.

Kelly Snyder



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