I always know the fall has begun in earnest when Chicago’s Lyric Opera rolls out the red carpet on the Wacker Drive portico and returns to the Civic Opera House. I come from an opera family; my kids were supernumeraries the way some families are soccer families, so we anticipate the season with the Pritzker Pavilion pregame season teaser every year and get some tastes of what is to come. Verdi’s Ernani returns to the Lyric and checks off every box for die hard fans: a tragic love quadrangle, lush period costumes and sets (designed by Scott Marr) big choral scenes that inspire (conducted by Michael Black) and a Verdi score that has all the bells and whistles, or in this case arias and recitatives. Lyric Opera music director Enrique Massola batons this full out classical opera extravaganza with a masterful hand and partners with an all star cast to make this a must see opera. The title role is sung by up and coming American tenor Russell Thomas who became more passionate and confident as the evening progressed. Everyone’s love interest Elvira is sung by the golden toned Chicago grown Tamara Wilson. She is known for her Verdi heroines and she is delicious here. Local favorite Quinn Kelsey takes on the power hungry role of Carlo. His baritone voice continues to grow in power and his acting deepens with every character. Christian Van Horn returns again to Chicago as the love stricken old man of honor Silva, and it is his character that has the most interesting story arc– intent on marrying his ward, he is bound by old school Latin patriarchal mores that imprison everyone constrained by them. And maintaining his honor blinds and embitters him.
Grand opera will never be a bastion of feminist stories and Ernani’s plot particularly tosses the young woman about like a piece of highly desired pastry, wanted by all these powerful men for their own reasons, but director Louisa Muller gives this Elvira a backbone, and lets her be more calculating than some traditional renditions might have portrayed. Her aria Ernani,Involami introduces us to a woman who knows what she wants and won’t be swayed by all the material objects that Silva gifts her. Nor is she impressed by King Carlo’s suit: more she is concerned– if he is crowned emperor she, like all his subjects, will be forced to obey his whims. Wilson allows us to see all of Elvira’s thoughts and dilemmas.
Ernani gives the audience nearly three hours of spectacle, glorious music, high drama and grandeur, acres of velvet and brocade and jewels, and stunning scenery-- it’s a feast for your senses and like nothing else. If you are new to opera or to this opera, check out the free pre-show presentations which help educate and illuminate with an enthusiastic and down to earth expert. And don’t worry if you don’t speak Italian– English supertitles are projected above the proscenium.
Opera runs are shorter than they used to be: if you want to see this grand opera classic you only have until October 1. Go, dress up and bring a pal (though Opera is come as you are these days– there were gowns and blue jeans at opening night) The Lyric runs shows in repertory so for exact dates, more plot and casting info and to buy tickets go to www.lyricopera.org or call 312-827-5600.