Theater Review: ‘Ernani’: Early Verdi Opera Resonates With Male Voices


CHICAGO—With “Ernani,” Verdi’s fifth opera, his fame took a giant leap. The opera premiered in Venice in 1844, and then went on to world stages in London, Paris, and New York, making the Italian composer an international superstar in his own time.

Based on the Victor Hugo play, “Hernani,” with the libretto by Francesco Maria Piave, “Ernani” takes place in 16th-century Spain and revolves around a love quadrangle. At the center of the tale is the nobleman Ernani who has become an outlaw after the murder of his father and the confiscation of his estates.  He is motivated by two passions: to revenge his father’s death and to marry Elvira, the woman he loves. But to have her for his wife, Ernani must first save her from the clutches of her aged uncle and guardian, Don Silva, who has plans to marry her, as well as from Don Carlo, the King of Spain, who also desires her hand.

The moral core of the tale, though, is not just about love and marriage, but also a struggle over ideas of life, duty, and death. Will honor triumph over love is the question at the opera’s climactic ending.

“Ernani” hasn’t been performed in Chicago for almost 13 years. This production is part of Lyric Opera’s new music director Enrique Mazzola’s initiative to present one of Giuseppe Verdi’s early operas within five seasons. Indeed, the new maestro brought out the melodic best from the performers and the fantastic Lyric orchestra in the spectacular revival.

Although it is not as well-known as some of Verdi’s greatest works, such as “Rigoletto,” “La traviata,” and “Il trovatore,” “Ernani” is still worthwhile for its exceptional arias, and enthralling duets.

Strong Male Voices

Focusing more specifically on the individual voices rather than the chorus was the most important aspect of the opera at the early stage of the Verdi’s career. This is the opera in which he defines for the first time his male vocal archetypes: the rock-hard bass (Silva), the lyrical and heroic tenor (Ernani), and the richness of the baritone (Don Carlo). “Ernani” was created from the combination and clash of these three voice types.

As Ernani, Russell Thomas delivers a strong tenor that captivates the woman he loves, as well as the Lyric audience.  As Elvira, Tamara Wilson provided a wonderful soprano that went a long way in explaining why all the men are in love with her.

As Don Carlo, baritone Quinn Kelsey, who stole the hearts of Lyric audiences a few years ago in “Rigoletto,” once again stands out, this time as a king torn between the harshness of ruling and the empathy of kindness. It’s not an easy stretch to make the switch between the two emotions believable, but Kelsey rises to the challenge.

Baritone Quinn Kelsey as Don Carlo, a king torn between the harshness of ruling and the empathy of kindness in the Lyric Opera of Chicago's production of Verdi's opera "Ernani." (Cory Weaver)
Baritone Quinn Kelsey as Don Carlo, a king torn between the harshness of ruling and the empathy of kindness in the Lyric Opera of Chicago's production of Verdi's opera "Ernani." (Cory Weaver)

As Silva, Christian Van Horn is an imposing presence who almost stops the show with his lush, deep bass-baritone, and although a villain, he comes across almost as a sympathetic figure when he reveals the heartache of having to give up the one desire of his elderly years.

Verdi’s music, under Mazzola’s baton, comes across to perfection, and was given a stirring rendition by an ensemble of extraordinary vocal talents. It’s a terrific production to kick off the Lyric’s 68th season. In addition, under Louisa Muller’s skillful and taut direction, the colorful opera features a fast-paced suspense that offers the excitement of a cloak-and-dagger thriller.

Furthermore, the scenic design by Scott Marr presents a stunning recreation of the Spanish opulence and elegance of 1519 Spain, the setting in which the events of “Ernani" unfold.  The gargantuan and ornate wooden doors that reach to the ceiling, the spacious and empty halls of the Spanish castle, plus Duane Schuler’s lighting effects—hanging chandeliers—make for dazzling imagery that is enhanced by Marr’s ravishing period costumes that transport one to another time and another place.

The Lyric Chorus, led by chorus master Michael Black, once more is in top form, adding as they always do a rich textured background to Verdi’s enchanting score.

One last thing that always makes opening nights at the opera such a meaningful and special pleasure is the Lyric’s commitment to begin its proceedings with the singing of the Star-Spangled Banner.  Watching the entire audience stand up with hands on their hearts singing in unison the anthem of our great country is an experience in itself.

‘Ernani’ The Lyric Opera of Chicago 20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago Tickets: 312-827-5600 or Runs: 2 hours, 50 minutes Closes: Oct. 1, 2022
As an arts writer and movie/theater/opera critic, Betty Mohr has been published in the Chicago Sun-Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Australian, The Dramatist, the SouthtownStar, the Post Tribune, The Herald News, The Globe and Mail in Toronto, and other publications.