Théâtre du Capitole
Tamara Wilson, Alfred Kim and Michele Pertusi in Toulouse's Théâtre du Capitole production of Ernani
Vitaliy Bilyy as Carlo
VICTOR HUGO'S PLAY
HERNANI—an unapologetically Romantic drama that caused great controversy among French Classicists at the time of its premiere in Paris in 1830—is today best remembered as the source of Verdi’s opera 1844 opera Ernani, one of the finest works from what the composer described as his “galley years.” Ernani was the most popular of Verdi’s operas until the advent of Il Trovatore in 1853. As in Il Trovatore, the four principal roles in Ernani place great demands on its singers; the new production at the Théâtre du Capitole in Toulouse—staged by Brigitte Jaques-Wajeman and conducted by Evan Rogister—was a bold piece of programming.
The performance on March 14 was blighted by the sudden acute laryngitis of American soprano Tamara Wilson, who was cast in the role of Elvira, the woman loved by three different men. It was more than sad that the theater had not considered a cover for one of the most exacting roles in the Verdi repertoire. To save the show, Wilson courageously and stylishly marked her way through the score: she apparently had been terrific at the opening performance of the run on March 10. But Wilson’s indisposition meant that the wonderful ensembles and duets, which abound in this opera, were compromised: even a singer with a score in the orchestral pit could have righted the vocal balance.
Fortunately the performance had many positive musical qualities, chief amongst them was the conducting of American Evan Rogister. He understood the burning urgency of the score, pushing the excellent chorus and Orchestre National du Capitole forward with the savage rhythmic drive early Verdi demands, while not neglecting the more delicate moments of lyricism, for example the wonderfully played postlude of Carlo’s great aria “Oh, de’ verd’anni miei.” Ukrainian baritone Vitaliy Bilyy invested Carlo with imperious tone and a strong physical presence, but had a tendency to oversing, and strove to produce gleaming high notes at the expense of nuanced phrasing and meaningful Italian. Korean tenor Alfred Kim had all the necessary sinewy power and the stalwart upper register required for the aristocrat–turned–bandit Ernani, but only seemed moderately engaged dramatically. The best performance of the evening was the Silva of Michele Pertusi, who sported sinister dark glasses in this updated staging. Pertusi’s performance had everything—glorious bass tone and long, delicately inflected Italianate phrasing ideally judged for this small theater.
Director Jaques-Wajeman’s idea to update the story to include Fascist soldiers and suited gentleman did little to help the drama of Hugo and Verdi. If Jaques-Wajeman’s intention was to raise the production above the anecdotal, then a clearer historical context had to be established than this vague shift in period. The appearance of Silva’s fateful horn to summon Ernani’s death looked particularity anachronistic. Piave’s libretto is not his finest, especially compared with Hugo’s vigorous original, Hernani. In the opera, Carlo’s conciliatory benediction of the marriage of Ernani and Elvira when he is crowned emperor is passed over in just a few stanzas. As often in his early works, the composer chose pulsing dramatic situations over linear logic, but there was no need for the director to move the superb chorus as an unyielding block, and the acting of the soloists needed to be raised above the rudimentary. The best stage element of the evening was Jean Kalman’s expressive lighting, which captured the work’s shadowy world of light and shade. Emmanuel Peduzzi’s sets were reasonably effective abstract, although the tumbling white veil that covered the doomed lovers in the finale produced a smile rather than a tear. —Stephen J. Mudge