Honor smites love in Verdi’s ‘Ernani’ at Lyric | Arts & Entertainment

Many Victor Hugo stories have lived vibrant new lives in other forms. “Les Misérables”, for example, is a tremendously popular musical. “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” has been made into a film several times. Hugo’s play “Hernani” also lives in another form; it is the basis for the early Verdi opera “Ernani”. 

Lyric Opera of Chicago opened its 68th season with a quiver of outstanding principal singers that brought heft and compelling singing to this outsized drama that pits love against honor and leaves the viewer-listener gutted when the final act of violence brings the tragedy to a close.

Ernani is a nobleman who was stripped of his title and wealth after the previous King of Spain murdered his father. Ernani lives disguised as an outlaw but manages to meet and fall in love with Elvira, who returns his love. She is also being wooed by her elderly guardian Silva, who wants to force her into marriage with him. (In Hugo’s original, this situation is even creepier, as the would-be groom is her uncle.) Carlo, the current King of Spain, is yet another man who has a romantic hankering for Elvira and also wants to marry her. 

In a temporary truce of convenience for both parties, Ernani and Silva at one point join forces against the King, but this is only possible by Ernani making a promise to put his life in the hands of Silva. Ernani has made a pact that ensures his own death on the installment plan, with the added sting that Silva appears and demands his revenge on the joyful day Ernani has at last married Elvira.

This opera is brimming with music of great passion and bubbling cauldrons of emotion. Tenor Russell Thomas brings heroic sound to the title character, filling Ernani with a laser-powered focus on achieving revenge for his father’s murder. On opening night Thomas was rather muted in Act I, but he warmed up considerably for the next three. He has stellar high notes that seem to float into the upper reaches of the stage. Soprano Tamara Wilson brings a full, plush voice to Elvira, and she does a splendid job of creating a woman of dignity who wants nothing more than a marriage to a man of her own choosing.

But the real standouts in this production are the two low voices representing the enemies of Ernani. As Carlo, baritone Quinn Kelsey delivers a multi-faceted King who has both swagger and self-doubt. This production marks Kelsey’s 18th role at Lyric, dating back to his days as a member of Lyric’s Ryan Center for young singers. He was a standout in his Ryan Center tenure and has only gotten better since the 2003–04 season when he made his Lyric debut. His voice has warmth and great flexibility and he clearly establishes both regal confidence as well as inner conflict. His internal consternation over whether he can be an effective Holy Roman Emperor made Act III incredibly powerful.

Bass-baritone Christian Van Horn, another Ryan Center alum, also offers a splendid performance. Like Kelsey, this is his 18th role for Lyric and, for my money, his best yet. His lower register has gained power over the years and he delivered some gorgeous singing even in the most treacherous low sections. 

Scott Marr has created an evocative setting for the opera, including a dramatic backdrop of a dark and wild mountain scene. At one point over three dozen lanterns descend from the ceiling to create points of light over the singers. Walls are long and tall and solid, to establish the prison-like environment for Elvira as well as standing for the power and financial might that work against Ernani.

From a visual perspective this opera has the feel of a great painting that sings to you. The mood and place and time are clear, yet like a painting, it feels static. Director Louisa Muller is unable to create any romantic spark between Ernani and Elvira, so the music must do all the heavy lifting. She has also added a silent character, Ernani’s Dad, who is killed during the overture in a cloud of liquid nitrogen. He ambles silently onto the stage at various times, hulking like a zombie.

The program has very helpful and interesting ideas about the opera provided by the director, conductor and a musicologist, and a quick read before the performance (the program is available online) will add to your enjoyment. But even these experts can’t get around the fact that there are some ridiculous aspects to this opera that make it hard to find it fully satisfying. Why does Carlo so easily do a 180 and give up Elvira? Is it believable that he would do so in favor of a man who has such hateful feelings toward him? Is it really honorable for Ernani to make a suicide pact with Silva, a man who has essentially imprisoned a woman against her will? Is it a duty to keep such a pact? “Les Miz” is powerful because of the antagonist’s warped sense of justice. But it is the supposed good guy in “Ernani” who has a warped sense of honor, at least in my contemporary sense of the word. That makes it hard to believe and harder to swallow.

But the music wins in the end. It is energetic, invigorating and imaginative. You could feel this from the very first strains from the pit. Lyric’s music director Enrique Mazzola presided over the Lyric Opera Orchestra with a sure, easy hand. The music is vital and engrossing, from the orchestra to the marvelous Lyric Opera Chorus (prepared by Michael Black), all supporting the principals in splendid fashion.