WHEN Opera Australia emerged recently from a year of closures and lockdown, it did so in a grand manner.
Earlier this month was a revival of Graeme Murphy’s glitzy “Merry Widow”, which saw patrons flocking back to the Joan Sutherland Theatre and now, in a collaboration with La Scala in Milan, it’s presenting one of the most extravagant swashbucklers ever created by Verdi.
“Ernani” is based on a play by Victor Hugo (think “Les Miserables”) which caused literary riots in Paris when the classicists fought it out against the romanticists, for whom Hugo was the apostle.
Honour, duty, vengeance, love at all costs – these were the themes of the romantics, picked up by Verdi in 1844 for his fifth opera, hugely popular then but now rarely performed and scorned in operatic circles for its improbable plot, although in 1904, it became the first complete opera ever recorded.
It was Verdi’s first ever collaboration with librettist Francesco Maria Piave, who would go on to write the libretto for works like “La Traviata” and “Rigoletto”. Oddly, the Teatro La Fenice, where it opened, wanted a woman to sing the role of Ernani but Verdi insisted on a tenor.
Years ago, I saw “Ernani” on stage at Sadler’s Wells in London with the Australian tenor Donald Smith singing the role in English and hadn’t particularly noticed any improbability, or no more so than in many operas.
Very briefly, bandit-hero Ernani is caught in a four-way tussle with Don Carlo, King of Spain, the conniving Don Ruy Gomez de Silva and Elvira, the girl he loves who, bizarre to us now, has been forcibly betrothed to de Silva, her uncle.
Armenian-Australian soprano Natalie Aroyan has scored the plum role of Elvira for the coming OA production, and I caught up with her as she was deep in rehearsals with Laura Galmarini, the revival director sent out from Italy by La Scala.
It’s a great role and may partly compensate for the cancellation in early 2020 of Verdi’s “Attila”, in which she was playing the lead, after just two shows. A rising star, she will also be performing the title role of Aida for OA and Opera Queensland later this year.
Aroyan knows all about the problems with the storyline of “Ernani” and, as a modern woman, says, “there’s a lot we can’t relate to in the 21st century… Elvira is betrothed to her uncle, the man in her life chooses his honour over his love for her and kills himself on his wedding day and Elvira is a damsel in distress, who needs to be watched over”.
It’s because of the storyline, not the music, that it’s not done very often, she believes.
“That’s why the original director [Sven-Eric Bechtolf] makes it a play within a play, it’s a clever way to approach the story,” she says.
“The stage will initially be set in the 19th century when the cast come out ready to put on a play, ‘Ernani.’ A lot of stage hands are fixing things and dropping things and then we go back in time.”
It’s an excuse, OA is saying, to embrace the melodrama, and allows for lavish period costumes, masks and headdresses which mix in the 16th century setting of the tale. Pulling out all the stops, OA has engaged Verdi expert Renato Palumbo to conduct.
The play within a play allows the director to intertwine the themes of love, honour and vengeance with contemporary observations of those emotions.
“It’s a case of playing the role but feeling the emotions,” Aroyan says.
“It will be clear once it’s on stage.”
So, what is the attraction in playing Elvira? Aroyan says it’s very simply because the vocal range of this central character, which veers into dramatic coloratura, “is extraordinary enough to get me very excited”.
It fascinates her, because as one of Verdi’s early operas, he’s made it very hard to sing.
“It’s a bit of an adventure,” she says.
“For the soprano there are a lot of low notes while the tenor is singing high – a lot of ups and then down to your chest. It’s a marathon.”
Playing Ernani is long-time OA colleague, Mexican tenor Diego Torre, familiar to Canberra audiences from “Voices in the Forest”.
“In the rehearsal we realised how some of our duets start off very quietly then we are joined by the orchestra, it’s very personal and unique,” she says.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity for me, very rewarding, very similar to my role in ‘Attila’, where I came in all guns blazing and jumped two octaves – this kind of singing is great. I love that… I keep going for the music.”
“Ernani”, Sydney Opera House, February 2-13, bookings to opera.org.au