Verdi’s fifth opera, Ernani, first performed in 1843, was his most popular opera until Il trovatore from nearly a decade later finally overtook it. Its chivalric content runs rather deep for modern audiences. This may be why Sven-Eric Bechtolf, in his new production at Teatro alla Scala, Milan, decided to present it as a theatrical production from Verdi’s time, as if playing to an audience more susceptible to the High Romanticism of Verdi’s source, Victor Hugo.

The opera is rarely subtle, and Bechtolf’s production deliberately supplies a pretext for the singers to act in an old-fashioned manner.

Yet even such an audience might wince at the work’s central premise, in which a Byronic hero solemnly pledges to kill himself on demand. This rash commitment is made in the castle of Don Ruy Gomez de Silva, an elderly grandee in love with his niece Elvira, who in turn is also loved by Ernani, a nobleman turned bandit, and by Carlo, the king of Spain (soon to be the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V). Having risked his life by hiding Ernani from the king, Silva receives Ernani’s pledge to kill himself at the sound of a hunting horn, which he gives to Silva, and the two jointly vow revenge against the king. Not surprisingly, Silva sounds the horn just as Ernani and Elvira are to marry.

This shattering moment gives rise to a final trio in which Elvira frantically pleads with Silva, Ernani stoically accepts his fate, and Silva implacably remains firm. It is the crowning glory of the opera, which nevertheless is full of other passionate, energetic numbers that find Elvira’s three lovers seeking to advance their causes while she dodges Silva and Carlo in favor of Ernani. The opera is rarely subtle (which is not to say it lacks compositional ingenuity), and Bechtolf’s production deliberately supplies a pretext for the singers to act in an old-fashioned manner. Fortunately, they don’t abuse the privilege as they aptly and stirringly bring the opera’s stormy passions to a boil.

Francesco Meli and Ailyn Pérez as Ernani and Elvira in Ernani. Photo: Opera Online.

Bechtolf’s concept, however, requires constant reminders of the performance’s theatrical trappings, such as primitive backstage equipment, none of which meaningfully adds to the experience. Clearly, this is no provincial theater, since the sets are quite ornate in their antiquated way. Still, stagehands can be seen scrambling about, one of whom brings in a campfire midway through the opening scene for Ernani and his followers. Sometimes you almost suspect Bechtolf of doing a sendup of the opera, as when Silva calls for his sword and is presented with one taller than he is, but these moments are relatively harmless. Cabaret dancing during the Act IV festivities reportedly drew booing from the audience at the premiere, but on October 2 it was taken in stride.

With Elvira, Ailyn Pérez, a lyric soprano familiar to American audiences, ventures into new and weightier vocal territory. Previously, her Verdi roles have included Violetta in La traviata and not much else. But Elvira’s music, like so much of Verdi, owes much to the bel canto tradition, and Pérez’s flexible voice skillfully dealt with the role’s florid challenges, while its handsome, if not plush, timbre was appealingly projected in sustained passages.

Similarly, Francesco Meli, this production’s Ernani, is not a born Verdian, but as he demonstrated in Aida with Riccardo Muti last year in Salzburg, he brings an unusual degree of nuance and dynamic contrast to the music, which makes for consistently interesting singing. The voice is lean rather than robust, but it has the ability to cut through the orchestra and suggest the role’s heroic dimension.

Luca Salsi was in fine form as Carlo. His otherwise elegant singing of the lovely Act II cabaletta “Vieni meco, sol di rose” sometimes strayed in pitch, but the baritone sang nobly and movingly in the great scene in which the emperor grants clemency. The reliable bass Ildar Abdrazakov invested Silva with vocal and histrionic authority, and Ádám Fischer’s propulsive conducting of the uncut score was another factor in the production’s favor.

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