For the uninitiated (and perhaps even for those clued in) thinking of going to the opera, the Lyric’s Ernani is likely what they have in mind. This lush 2022-2023 season opener is, from its 16th century Spanish setting to rich medieval costumes to a large and stage-filling chorus, is everything one has in mind when they think of the opera. And with a quartet of powerful pipes at its center, Verdi’s “love quadrangle,” as the program describes it, gets a vibrant and engaging staging on now through October 1.
Though he’s the titular character, Ernani (Russell Thomas) is just one of three suitors of Elvira (Tamara Wilson), a woman sought after by this wayward soldier as well as her guardian, Silva (Christian Van Horn) and none other than the King of Spain, Carlo (Quinn Kelsey). When it premiered in 1844 (based on a play by Victor Hugo), one can imagine an audience swept away by the grandeur of this over-the-top romance, replete with the naming of an emperor, a life or death bargain, kidnapping and more. It’s all a bit much, but something about seeing it all unfold on the stage makes it ravishing and undeniably captivating. Directed by Louisa Muller with sets and costumes by Scott Marr, the whole production again proves what a gem the Lyric is in the city’s theater landscape.
After returning from battle, Ernani heads to see his love Elvira; he’s surprised to find her in the grips of another suitor, the King, who says he’ll abduct her to keep her for himself. These three are interrupted by Silva, who threatens both men until he realizes who the latter really is. Now, Silva and the King plan to conspire on the upcoming election of a Holy Roman Emperor, wihile Ernani is left to run for cover at Elvira’s urging rather than die at the hands of one of these power-hungry men. Later, thinking Ernani is dead and with the King preoccupied, Elvira resolves to marry Silva and at least have his protection on her side. But she can’t bring herself to do it, and soon Ernani is back and pledging his love to her. With the King on his way and Silva intent on killing Ernani himself, he tells Ernani to hide for now so he can deal with him later. But Ernani makes a bargain with Silva, one that will come back to haunt him in the show’s tragic final moments.
More of an ensemble piece than anything, each of the four lead performers is strong in their own right. Thomas’s tenor floats beautifully above the darker, heartier tones of Kelsey’s baritone and Van Horn’s deep bass-baritone, while Wilson’s bright and lovely soprano balances out the quartet. Verdi allows each character their due; the King’s solo to open Act III in the tomb of Charlemagne is particularly moving, as are the moments when three or more of the leads get to share the melody. Surrounding these key players is a chorus of easily more than 50, men serving as King’s guards or soldiers and women flitting here and there as ladies’ maids. It’s likely never easy to organize this level of background ensemble, but at the performance being reviewed here, this large crowd felt more unwieldy than impressive with messy choreography and seemingly confused stage directions.
It’s a small quibble in an otherwise seamless production, one that kicks off a new season in style and one that the Lyric, yet again, can be proud of.
Ernani at Lyric Opera of Chicago, 20 N. Wacker Dr., enjoys select performances through October 1; tickets and more information available here.
For more information on this and other productions, see www.theatreinchicago.com.
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