We were privileged to see Verdi’s early masterpiece Ernani in a co-production with La Scala Milan. Following last year’s Attila (also a Milan co-production but stymied after two performances by the Covid pandemic) we again heard soprano Natalie Aroyan and tenor Diego Torre as doomed lovers. Bulgarian baritone Vladimir Stoyanov was the king and Ukrainian Vitalij Kowaljow sang basso role of Silva. All these singers, other soloists and chorus were at the highest level and put in sterling performances. There were ravishing choruses, duets, trios and a quartet, all in excellent form with much exciting music included for the love ‘quadrangle’, populus and court. The orchestra was also in fine form under Maestro Renato Palumbo, receiving a huge ovation in the single intermission.
Nicely balancing the crazy Quixotic plot by Victor Hugo, this production by Sven-Eric Bechtolf became a ‘play within a play’. During the overture our travelling troupe arrived with their bags and wide eyes to an open proscenium, flies, flats, ropes and curtain control wheels all visible … which venue became the various scenes for the opera. I found it terribly clever while others said it was silly. It certainly allowed numerous comic elements in an otherwise profound tragedy.
Ms Aroyan sang and acted superbly, as did her three suitors. Her Act I set piece ‘Surte e la notte’ was superb, comprising recitative, aria and cabaletta (with chorus). This was one of the first and last arias recorded by Joan Sutherland about 25 years apart. I heard more than one audience member saying that Aroyan was no Joan Sutherland. Well, yes, but who is? Netrebko is busy and may not cope with 2 weeks in quarantine. Few top sopranos could sing all these notes, let alone carry off the role … and I don’t think Joan Sutherland ever did Ernani on stage either – and furthermore, her full recording was made when both she and Pavarotti were past their primes.
Verdi wrote famously for the baritone and we were not disappointed with Mr Stoyanov. Likewise Mr Kowaljow sang with a manly presence and velvet tone. And Diego Torre put forward perhaps his best role yet, having a full bodied tenor range and ample volume. We are fortunate that he is now a company member and an Australian citizen. He commences the magnificent final trio, ‘Solingo errante e misero’ which was popularised by the Lincoln Centre concert with Pavarotti, Sutherland, Horne (Horne singing the baritone part!).
Overseas artists must have travelled to Sydney with special permits and stayed in hotel quarantine for which we should all be appreciative. Covid stringencies affect artists just like tennis players.
How fortunate in Sydney that we had a 75% full auditorium (socially distanced, compulsory masks, no foyer mingling) of opera fans enjoying this art form once again in Sydney. Covid has been at low levels here for 6 months and the last isolated cases were just two weeks ago. Opera is indeed an “exotic and irrational entertainment” as per Dr Johnson’ dictionary. One day someone will write an opera about Covid-19. I wonder what Johnson would have made of The Merry Widow or Cats!
Written by Andrew Byrne ..