By Sue-Anne Hess

Opening night at The Opera. Does it get any better than this?

Last night, Melbourne’s State Theatre lit up in its’ glorious best as it presented the spectacular dramma lirico, Ernani, by Verdi. Determined patrons battled through the perils of pouring rain, subarctic temperatures, irritating COVID regulations, and aggressively unwelcoming theatre staff, to be warmly embraced by the glory of Opera Australia. And it was worth it. Ernani delivers in spades.

To describe Ernani as a “lavish production” is putting it mildly! Before the orchestra even makes a peep, the audience is captivated by the intricate detail of Julian Crouch’s scenic and set design. While simple in style, the imagery is convincing and emotive; meticulous, but not busy. Soothing greens, browns and greys in each backdrop perfectly compliment the unfolding drama, brought to life by Kevin Pollard’s extraordinary costumes. And they are extraordinary. A larger-than-expected cast fills the stage in deep, rich, and brilliant colours (heavily embellished with gold), creating a sense of intensity and opulence. There’s robes and tights, gigantic dresses, and epic hairpieces. It is almost overstimulating… But not quite.

Indeed, one would expect nothing less than perfection from the vocal performances of Opera Australia soloists, and perfection is what you get. Each of the four leads had their moment (or moments) to shine with melodrama a plenty. It was so flawlessly and confidently delivered, that it left this humble reviewer wondering if they were, in fact, even human?

Ultimately, there was one element made Ernani stand out from the rest. As mentioned, there was a massive cast – too many to count – that populated the stage more often than not. The vocal chorus, deftly supported by Orchestra Victoria, offered a dimension of beauty that was, from time to time, utterly breathtaking. Act III delivered both Si ridesti il Leon di Castiglia and Carlo! Oh, sommo Carlo! performances which lifted Ernani into a class of its own.

Still, there were elements of the production that were slightly strange. The story of Ernani is set in the 16th century, yet certain costuming choices and stage props seemed inexplicably more suited to the 19th century. (Perhaps we were watching a “story within a story”?) The ending too, was somewhat unexpected. For those of us used to stories wrapping up nicely with good resolution, the Ernani plot seemed as though it was cut off mid-sentence. After the climactic joy of Act III, the curtain fell on Act IV in an almost deflated manner (no spoilers though). And what were the random angels all about?

Opera Australia surely had their reasons for abstaining from offering programmes this time around.  Nonetheless, it was disorienting to be in the audience without any frame of reference or explanatory notes. Surely, more than one audience members’ heart gave a sigh of relief when the garish “surtitles” box lit up above the stage, providing English translation? In many ways though, there is really no need to comprehend. This production is about the senses: seeing, hearing, and feeling the emotional peaks and troughs, rather than analysing them.

Ernani offers everything that makes a night at the opera magnificent. There’s devotion and hate, honour and revenge, brotherhood and betrayal, and more mood changes than an episode of Big Brother. But it is also passionate, whole-hearted, and exceptionally well-produced. Ernani transcends the grey dreariness of a Melbourne winter’s night, and transports audiences into another spectacular realm.