Ever since European settlement began, Australia has had to reckon with a sense of its isolation from the traditional centres of Western culture. Right now, this is an advantage rather than an obstacle, as the pandemic has been controlled here to such an extent that live opera performances in front of masked spectators are again a possibility, in stark contrast to the situation throughout virus-ravaged Europe and America. This sense of a (temporary) relocation of operatic activity was highlighted in Wednesday night’s Ernani, which happened to be an Opera Australia co-production with Milan’s La Scala, that most iconic of Italian venues.

Natalie Aroyan (Elvira) and Diego Torre (Ernani)
© Prudence Upton

These days Ernani languishes in the bottom half of Verdi’s output in terms of numbers of productions, but it was once rated much higher. A success from its first run of performances, it established the composer’s fame throughout Europe. One can certainly hear in it those stylistic features which were cemented Verdi’s better-known middle-period operas: soaring lyricism, coloratura display, banda textures, simple rhythmic patterns, and a shrewd sense of dramatic pacing.

The mechanics of the plot have much in common with another of Verdi’s Spanish operas, the later Il trovatore: a woman is in love with a rebellious outsider, but is forcibly wooed by another more powerful man (in the case of Ernani, by two more powerful men: the Duke Ruy Gomez de Silva, and King Carlos of Spain, soon to become Holy Roman Emperor). 

Diego Torre (Ernani), Natalie Aroyan (Elvira) and Vitalij Kowaljow (Silva)
© Prudence Upton

But where Trovatore emphasises these personal loves and jealousies, in Ernani they become imbricated in politics to a greater extent. Undergirding the actions of these Spanish grandees is a rigid code of honour, which Julian Budden has described as “more an obsessive pride which turns all the characters into giant egotists, swearing mutual vengeance for the most trivial causes, doing each other monstrous kindnesses, destroying themselves and each other to satisfy some whim of punctilio”. The shifting hatreds and alliances between the three rivals-in-love was hard to follow or relate to, and lines like “love’s bridal bed was our altar of death” steered the opera perilously close to camp.

Faced with a plot which, viewed unsympathetically, is frankly risible, the director Sven-Eric Bechtolf used various devices to achieve a kind of Brechtian ‘alienation’. Right from the start, the theatricality of what we were to experience was advertised: the prelude and the final scene were witnessed by travellers dressed in 19th-century garb, in striking contrast to the medieval-themed costumes of the characters. The mechanics of the production were also foregrounded: scenery and backcloths were raised and lowered by four very prominent wheels operated by stagehands in full view of the audience. At times, these changes happened while the previous scene was still going full throttle, leading to (deliberately) disconcerting visual juxtapositions.

Simon Kim (Don Riccardo), Vladimir Stoyanov (Don Carlo) and Natalie Aroyan (Elvira)
© Prudence Upton

Ultimately, however, these elements did not amount to a Regie-style deconstruction of the heroics of the story. Aside from a few comedic touches (as when everyone ducked while a vengeful Silva clumsily wielded an overly large sword), a tone of high seriousness was mostly maintained by the characters, leaving the viewer unsure as to the point of the production. The sets by Julian Crouch were gorgeously realistic, with the rendition of Charlemagne’s tomb in the gothic cathedral of Aix-la-Chapelle a highlight. Similarly Kevin Pollard’s costumes were a riotous feast of colour, and the sight of the chorus in full carnival kit for their brief appearance at the start of Act 4 fully justified the slightly awkward pause.

Diego Torre, for all his commitment when actually singing, brought little dynamism to the title role. Ernani is hardly one of the more interesting or developed characters in opera, but still one might have hoped for more snarling defiance, ardour and pride. In the more static solos and ensembles, his focussed tenor voice shone. Natalie Aroyan was a sound Elvira with plenty of opportunity to demonstrate her full high notes, while Vladimir Stoyanov grew into the role of Carlo, with his Act 3 stop-time cantabile “O sommo Carlo” a luscious gem.

Vladimir Stoyanov (Don Carlo)
© Prudence Upton

The outstanding performance on the night was from Vitalij Kowaljow as Silva, his powerful bass voice giving the character genuine menace. The inserted cabaletta he sang in Act 1 may not have been endorsed by Verdi, but it was a welcome opportunity to hear more of him. Jennifer Black (Giovanna), Simon Kim (Riccardo) and Luke Gabbedy (Jago) all acquitted themselves well. The Opera Australia Chorus was comparatively busy, with the oath-swearing scene and the Act 3 finale particular highlights. The orchestra under Renato Palumbo emerged with credit, a few cases of poor coordination between pit and stage sure to be resolved in future performances.