Ernani is suddenly flavour of the month. Verdi’s early opera recently appeared at Opera Australia, the Met Opera streamed it on Thursday as part of its Dmitri Hvorostovsky Week and up it pops here, live from the gold-stuccoed horseshoe auditorium of the Teatro Massimo in Palermo. As a number of Italian opera houses have done, the platea was cleared for the principal singers, with the suitably distanced orchestra stretching far onto the stage and the chorus in four tiers of palchi, each member occupying their own private box in a roof-raising performance.

Coro del Teatro Massimo
© Rosellina Garbo

We glimpsed “behind the scenes” moments between acts, masked attendants fitting costumes in the foyer, demonstrating the safety protocols. Projections of historical set and costume designs were a neat addition. The stream had Italian subtitles and you could download an excellent programme book with a libretto and synopsis (the latter also in English) to help follow the semi-staged action. 

Semi-staged would perhaps be a generous description. This was, in essence, a concert performance in costume – lavish costumes, admittedly, beautifully designed by Francesco Zito, who was interviewed at length during the interval – with a couple of props and some generic hand gestures from the cast. The cameras darted around, weaving their way between singers. Simone Piazzola, as Don Carlo, brandished a riding crop menacingly towards the lens: I’m the king, be afraid. 

Simone Piazzola (Don Carlo) and Michele Pertusi (Silva)
© Rosellina Garbo

To be fair, this effort wasn’t so far removed from Pier Luigi Samaritani’s static “park and bark” staging for The Met and I’m not sure Ernani needs much more. With its reliance on codes of honor, it’s difficult to remove the plot from its Renaissance Spain setting. Perhaps a mafia-based updating could work – Don Ruy Gomez de Silva’s revenge is a dish best served cold, that sort of thing. At La Scala (the production that just transferred to Sydney), I thought Sven Eric Bechtolf seemed faintly embarrassed by the whole thing and turned it into a piece of meta-theatre. Forget the plot, then, and revel in the music. 

And what music! Ernani laid the blueprint for Verdi’s later Spanish-based works, Il trovatore, La forza del destino and, ultimately, Don Carlos, where our king here ends up as the retired Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, lurking in the monastery of Saint-Just. Verdi’s glorious melodic invention was given an equally glorious performance, each of the principals (all Italians, praise be) on fine form and conducted with red-blooded vigour by Omer Meir Wellber, music director in Palermo for just over a year. Wellber’s pacing was truly superb and his coordination of orchestra, principals and chorus impressive, aided by numerous monitors. The concertante numbers that end the first three acts were thrillingly delivered, making one want to punch the air. I did. 

Eleonora Buratto (Elvira)
© Rosellina Garbo

Eleonora Buratto sang a wonderful Elvira (even better than her Parma concert performance in the autumn). She sang the treacherous “Ernani, Ernani, involami” with great control and a finely spun legato, while the cabaletta “Tutto sprezzo che d'Ernani” sparkled. Simone Piazzola took a while to hit his considerable stride; phrases ran out of steam early on, but by the time he reached “Lo vedremo, veglio audace” his velvet baritone was purring. Don Carlo is the only three-dimensional character in the plot and his cavatina “Oh, de' verd'anni miei” was sung with grace and nobility.

Giorgio Berrugi (Ernani) and Michele Pertusi (Silva)
© Rosellina Garbo

Stylish bass Michele Pertusi made Silva a sympathetic character (both tenor and baritone are lusting after his niece/fiancée) so it was good to have the rousing cabaletta “Infin che un brando vindice” included here (a late insertion some months after the opera’s premiere). Giorgio Berrugi was very impressive in the title role, his tenor sounding polished and not overly forced (Ernani may be masquerading as a bandit, but is of noble birth). The evening was dedicated to the Sicilian tenor Vincenzo la Scola, who sang Ernani at the Teatro Massimo, on what is nearly the tenth anniversary of his death, a nice touch and this spirited performance marked a fitting tribute.

This performance was reviewed from the Teatro Massimo TV live video stream