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Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Opera Review: Suicide is Painless

Ernani returns at the Met.
Ernani (Roberto de Biasio, l.) and Elvira (Angela Meade)
in Act IV of Verdi's Ernani at the Met.
Photo by Marty Sohl © 2012 The Metropolitan Opera.

The long Metropolitan Opera season always has one surprisingly good revival among its two-dozen-or-so operas. This year, it's Ernani with a strong cast overcoming the vagaries of this Verdi opera, with its goofy Victor Hugo-inspired story of bandits and honor in 16th century Spain.

Despite being the third of Verdi's early successes, the composer's fifth opera has fallen out of fashion in this young century. That might have to do with the romantic idealism of the libretto, which was the composer's first collaboration with Piave, and deals with a highly romanticized kind of Spanish honor. Everything seems to be settled at knife-point in Ernani, even the hero's life. 

As with Il Trovatore, a good cast can surmount the story's limitations and draw you into this heightened world. At the Monday, Feb. 6 performance, the title role was sung by tenor Roberto de Biasio, a talented young singer who bowed in last year's revival of Simon Boccanegra. Mr. Biasio displayed a ringing top note and more importantly, a pleasing timbre in his sturdy young voice. 

Another veteran of that Boccanegra, Dmitri Hvorovstovsky did not have a strong start, but settled into the role as Carlo, the Spanish King who gets elected Emperor (Charles V) in the third act. Mr. Hvorovstovsky was aided by the set designs here, sweeping staircases that helped project his slightly undersized baritone. He was at his best in Act III, with the opening scena ("Oh de' verd' anni miei") in front of Charlemagne's tomb. Verdi's spartan orchestration in this scene helped.

Rising diva Angela Meade shone as Elvira, a role that was her breakout in 2008 when the Washington State native subbed in for an ailing Sondra Radnovovsky. This is the prototype Verdi leading lady, a strong-willed woman who seems constantly ready to commit suicide. Ms. Meade brought her admirable instrument to the part, meeting the challenging high-and-low notes of the opening "Ernani, inviolame" and  the fiery duets and trios that form the backbone of this score.

As Silva, the revenge-obsessed nobleman (who ends the opera by ordering Ernani to commit suicide--you can't make this stuff up) Ferruccio Furlanetto's long experience in Verdi showed. Here, he was essential to the performance's success, playing an ungrateful, but noble character. Mr. Furlanetto brought his rich, steady bass to this character, singing granite-like low notes as he plotted to first bring down Carlo, and then in the last act, Ernani. 

Although Marco Armiliato is a steady hand in the pit, he does not bring the same level of energy and kinetic drive that is needed for the most successful performances of this opera. But he favored his singers, leading them through the tricky passages and enabling that the translated words of Victor Hugo were audible throughout. The story of Ernani is dated, this performance treated a great early Verdi opera with the respect it deserves.

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