Metropolitan Opera Review 2015 - Ernani: Francesco Meli Shines in Title Role Alongside Placido Domingo, Angela Meade, Dmitry Belosselskiy
Verdi's "Ernani" remains a popular selection in the contemporary operatic repertoire mainly because of its memorable melodies for its central quartet of characters.
The Metropolitan Opera put on the first performance of the season on Friday, featuring a reputable cast.
The opera retains a dubious reputation for many because of its complicated plot that, out of its period context, presents an issue for modern-day audiences (and even Verdi's contemporaries). In a world where no one is willing to readily accept anyone's word or honesty, it seems nonsensical that men would honor oaths that contradict their own desires.
For those uninitiated into the world of Verdi's fifth opera, "Ernani" tells the story of a love square. The eponymous character is an outlaw who is in love with Elvira. While she reciprocates his feelings, she is a captive of the elderly Silva who has plans to marry her. All the while, King Carlo Quinto is also after Elvira's heart. What follows is each man constantly looking to one-up the other while also finding themselves caught in preserving their honor, often via questionable means. Silva promises hospitality to Ernani, despite it putting him in danger with the King and being his rival for Elvira's affections. In the second act, Ernani promises to kill himself when Silva chooses his moment to die. It does offer a lot of twists that on the surface look complicated. But in the context of their period, where Spanish honor demanded keeping one's word above all, it is not so overwhelming.
While some might claim the characters to be flat, there are some unique developments and complexities, nowhere more present than in Carlo. The monarch is the only one who seems to reflect on his behavior before realizing at the end that benevolence and mercy will allow him a greater rule; this of course runs in stark contrast to Silva's arc. Taking on the role for the first time in his career was legendary tenor (now baritone) Placido Domingo. Domingo took a rather delicate approach to the character, singing with a gentleness of line for most of the initial passages. During the Act 1 concertato, his voice was hushed as he remarked how quiet Silva was upon recognizing the King for the first time.
But from one act to the next, there was an increase in the strength of the singing, particularly in the recitativo passages, which suited Domingo's vocal drama best. He delivered a sardonic quality as he attempted to coax Silva into turning over Ernani in Act 2. But this snarly tone gave way to a more emphatic one, with consonants getting a bite and attack of aggression.
But the role of Don Carlo comes to full fruition in the Act 3 when he gets one of the most wondrous pieces of music in the work "Oh de'verd'anni miei." Scored initially for a solo cello accompaniment, the music is hushed and hesitant. But as Carlo makes up his mind and accepts his destiny, it grows in strength and the entire orchestra erupts in sound, asserting the character's control and power. This aria encapsulated Domingo's entire approach to the character for most of the night, starting off with gentle singing, albeit with extra space in the rests to emphasize his hesitance, before allowing voice to flow as one with the orchestra. And Domingo saved his best for the final concertato in which he pardons all, each legato line elegantly sung for all to hear. Even if there was a rugged nature to his sound, there is no denying that Domingo continues to astound even at 74.
In the title role was Francesco Meli, who in many ways was the standout of the night. He possesses a massive sound that showcased no difficulties traversing the numerous vocal challenges of the role. High notes came through with clarity and his phrasing and line retained a fluidity and flexibility. He possesses in many cases a blunt sound, but there can be no doubt that it is expressive. Moreover, whenever called upon, he could shift from his powerful direct quality to a simmering delicacy. Throughout the love duet in Act 2, his voice was a gentle thread, his caressing of every phrase allowing the listener to hear the purity of Ernani's love for Elvira.
During the final scene of the opera, Ernani declares his love for Elvira and the joy he feels at finally eloping with her. Throughout this passage, Meli sang piannissimo the entire time, drawing the listener into the intimacy of the moment; this was also replicated rather effectively in the Act 3 concertato, providing a contrast between the intimate love and the public glorification of the new emperor. But the moment the horn sounded, Meli's voice erupted into a blaze of unbridled sound, growing ever more violent at each subsequent phrase. He was unhinged, the intensity of the moment adding tension to the situation and preparing the viewer for the dramatic finish to come. His greatest vocal eruption, the apex of his sound, came right as he accepted his fate and delivered his big blow. And thereafter, his voice was as quiet as it had ever been the entire night, maybe even moreso. Every phrase had a subtle crescendo at the end, as if Ernani were doing his best to regain strength and also creating a natural progression to the fortissimo phrase that ends the night for the singers. It was a display of not only great singing, but vocal acting.
As Elvira, Angela Meade returned to a role that she has essentially made her own at the Met. What was most noticeable about this turn was the strength that Meade found in the lower register; in some ways these were the moments that resonated most dramatically, allowing the listener to listen to Elvira's doomed and violent nature, something that often goes unnoticed in some performances. While the men are constantly talking about murder, duels and war, it is Elvira who is most ready for action; she threatens the King with a knife in Act 1, tells Ernani that she had planned to commit suicide at the altar and in the final trio she threatens to attack Silva. In this performance, Meade delivered on Elvira's suicidal potential and killed herself with a knife, something she had done in her first run a few years ago. This moment was so abrupt and quick that you could hear audible shock from around the auditorium in the grand pause that followed.
Bass Dmitry Belosselskiy relished his opportunity to showcase Silva as more than a rotten villain. From his outset, he showcased Silva as a hurt man, every phrase in his singing ringing with the suffering of old age and rejection. His Silva was not afraid to dial down the aggression when offering his hospitality to Ernani or promising him protection. And he was especially delicate in his directives toward Elvira. But as the night wore on and everyone one of his plans was undone, he grew more vicious and Belosselskiy's voice became more pointed and accented in its phrasing. By the end, he was nothing if not a demon, his anger and hating completely destroying any signs of the pitiful old man. In the fatal moment, with both Elvira and Ernani lying on the floor dying and reaching for each other, he stood in between their arms, a mocking smile on his face. The trio is a rather wondrous piece of music, with Verdi consistently evolving and modifying the central melody to suit the different dramatic circumstances. When Silva comes to the fore, the orchestration includes woodwinds, thus giving the music a sarcastic quality. Belosslskiy embraced this cynicism, his voice almost laughing at the lovers.
In the pit, conductor James Levine delivered a wonderful account of the opera's prelude with a magical sound of the main melody derived from a perfect union of strings and winds. The ensuing interruption of said melody by the timpani was ferocious and a fine foreshadowing of the drama as a whole. He stayed out of his singers' way throughout the evening, though under his baton the opera moved along at a steady tempo, maintaining Verdi's sense of forward-motion without indulging in ritenutos as often as other interpretations. If there is any bone to pick with Levine, it has to be the cuts which, while moving the drama along, certainly feel abrupt in many cases, especially when the cabalettas are brief. Additionally, the extended pauses after each aria or musical number also slowed the opera significantly and there were certainly moments where the listener could have benefited from the music picking up within milliseconds of the previous number ending, if only to sustain that propulsive tempo that orchestra worked so hard (and successfully) to sustain.
All in all, this "Ernani" at the Met provided Met audiences with an opportunity to experience some of Verdi's most memorable melodies with some strong dramatic singing.