Berti, Marco


ErnaniGiuseppe Verdi - Ernani

Teatro Regio di Parma, 2005 | Antonello Allemandi, Pier’ Alli, Marco Berti, Carlo Guelfi, Giacomo Prestia, Susan Neves, Nicoletta Zanini, Samuele Simoncini, Alessandro Svab | C-Major

George Bernard Shaw may or may not have had Ernani in mind when he came up with the generic definition of an opera plot as being about a tenor and a soprano who want to make love but are prevented from doing so by a baritone, but Verdi’s opera matches this description remarkably closely. Based on Victor Hugo’s historical drama, ‘Hernani’, Verdi’s Ernani is very much a product of its time, seeped in arch-romantic sentiments of honour, nobility, love, duty, betrayal and revenge, and Verdi’s musical treatment of the subject can be seen as somewhat academic, adhering closely to the Italian operatic tradition of the time, writing for particular voices in certain roles. It’s how the voices are used in this work however that makes all the difference.

What distinguishes Ernani from other historical romantic dramas of this type, and provides a degree of variation from the GB Shaw template, is that there is not just a tenor and a baritone competing for the hand of the soprano in question, but Verdi also makes use of a bass as an extra cog to his musical wheel. What makes Verdi’s handling of the subject interesting in this early work of the composer however is not so much the apportioning of those characters to the conventional singing roles, but in how Verdi develops the musical expression of those types in a way that would determine and set archetypes that he would often come back to over the years, particularly in how he manages to brings them together into a single musical and dramatic unit.

Essentially then, for all the romantic exoticism of the Spanish setting, with Don Juan of Aragon forced into hiding and taking the disguise of the bandit Ernani, his romance with Elvira under threat not just from her impending marriage to Don Ruy Comez de Silva, but from a rivalry with king in waiting Don Carlo, Ernani fits very much into the mould of the by-the-numbers romantic melodrama. It would be certainly lacking in any kind of dramatic credibility that would engage a modern-day audience where it not for Verdi’s skilful writing for the voices. Working for the first time with the poet Francesco Maria Piave, Verdi taking the upper hand with a clear idea of how he wanted to express the drama, Ernani is consequently wonderfully structured and skillfully arranged, the scenes played out with musical consistency and fluidity that doesn’t call for the action to be halted in order for the singers to step forward and do their singing pieces.

Or at least, ideally, that’s how Ernani ought to be played. With the right kind of singers and direction, it shouldn’t be as dramatically rigid as it is presented in this 2005 production for the Teatro Regio di Parma, but unfortunately, neither the singers nor the direction are fully up to the task. Directed by Pier’ Alli, the set and costume designs are old-fashioned and period - which is fine and suits this particular work - but there’s no reason why it should also be presented in the old-fashioned ‘park and bark’ style, the singers all standing, looking out, gesturing and delivering the lines as if there were asides to the audience rather than directed towards the other characters in the drama. In some cases the drama can indeed to be rather expositional and declamatory, but through duets, trios and choral arrangements, and in the very tone and blending of the voices, Verdi strives to make it much more interpersonal - but in order to achieve that, you don’t just need stronger direction and some dramatic input from the cast, you also need good singers.

It’s for this reason that I used the term ‘park and bark’ above rather than ’stand and deliver’ to describe the performances, because, unfortunately, there’s more barking than nuanced or even accurate delivery of Verdi’s vocal writing, and the weakest elements are actually the roles where it really needs to be tighter and more expressive - Elvira and Ernani.  Marco Berti and Susan Neves both have their moments - Neves notably in the highly-charged third scene where she holds steady alongside the imposing Carlo of Carlo Guelfi and the grave intonations of Giacomo Prestia’s Silva, but elsewhere they are terribly uneven. Guelfi is undoubtedly the best there is here, bringing a real sense of the power, danger, nobility and clemency that his character proves to be capable of, but alone and under this stage direction, it’s never enough to convey the true worth of the arrangements.

The singing and the staging leave something to be desired, and unfortunately the musical presentation under Antonello Allemandi is similarly uneven. This is certainly disappointing and surprising, as the Allemandi and Alli team work much better together in the Teatro Regio di Parma recording of Oberto that is also available on Blu-ray as part of this collection. This isn’t entirely a bad performance of Ernani, just a rather uneven one that at its best never really rises above merely average. Ernani however, for all its flaws as one of Verdi’s earliest works, surely deserves more than that.

This recording of Ernani (previously released on DVD by Dynamic) is released here upgraded to HD in a Blu-ray release as part of the ‘Tutto Verdi’ series from C-Major, a collection that is made up of performances of all Verdi’s opera work recorded at the Teatro Regio di Parma. Some trailers for other works in the collection are included on the disc, as well as a visual introduction/synopsis for Ernani. The quality of the HD image is generally very good, although one or two scenes lack the same kind of detail that can be seen elsewhere and some of the camerawork is a little bit rough in places. There are no problems with the audio tracks, both the PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 sound clear and strong. There are however one or two curiosities in the English subtitles, but nothing significant. The Blu-ray is all-region, with subtitles in Italian, English, German, French, Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Japanese.

AidaGiuseppe Verdi - Aida

Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Firenze 2011 | Zubin Mehta, Ferzan Ozpetek, Hui Hei, Marco Berti, Luciana D’Intino, Roberto Tagliavini, Giacomo Prestia, Ambrogio Maestri, Saverio Fiore, Catarina di Tonno | Arthaus Musik

Aida is a tricky opera to stage effectively. It doesn’t hold up to modernisation or revisionism, demanding a very specific mood and setting that one messes with at one’s peril. I’ve seen it done before in a Risorgimento updating to Verdi’s time and in Robert Wilson’s particular minimalist style, both of which were interesting, but neither were entirely successful. On the other hand, a traditional approach to Aida requires both a big stage to match the grandeur of Verdi’s compositions of ceremonial marches through ancient monuments, and not everyone has the budget to go for the Full Zeffirelli. Even then however, the lack of dramatic incident and the demands placed on the singers mean that even a traditional setting can be rather static. Directed by Turkish-Italian filmmaker Ferzan Ozpetek, the Florence production of Aida, recorded here in 2011, tends towards the traditional and looks marvellous, but in how it approaches those other considerable challenges that a staging of the opera presents, it unfortunately falls well short of the mark.

That’s disappointing from a musical point of view, particularly as we have as distinguished a musical director as Zubin Metha conducting the orchestra, for if there’s at least one thing you would hope to count on from any production of Aida, it’s that it presents a vigorous account of Verdi’s dynamic score. Aida is one of the most melodic and memorable of late Verdi operas, with hints of grand opera influence, but it’s also one that is attuned to the emotional content of the drama with an exotic flavour for its Egyptian setting. The performance initially feels somewhat perfunctory, for the first Act at least, a run-through with no real commitment on the part of the musicians or the conductor. It improves in subsequent acts, warming to the characters and their situation, but there’s never a sense that Metha is able to get the orchestra to do full justice to the dynamic theatricality of Verdi’s majestic score.

Aida

If that’s the case – and it’s only my opinion – it’s at least in step with the lack of dynamism elsewhere in the production. The stage sets, designed by Dante Ferretti, look marvellous – grand statues and monuments bathed in golden light, with colourful sunsets and deep blue moonlit night scenes – and the costumes are traditional and exotic. Stage director Ferzan Ozpetek however is unable to find anything for the singers do on stage but stand and project out to an audience, while priests and choruses stand grouped or march in solemn procession. There’s no question of their being any acting involved. Only once is there a suggestion of anything with imagination and that occurs briefly when the traditional pomp and patriotic fervour of the Triumphal March is initially undercut by the appearance on the stage of a young bloodstained child, looking bewildered by the celebration of the slaughter that has occurred. It’s a throwaway touch however, soon forgotten under the more traditional, but not particularly imaginatively choreographed battle ballet that follows.

Again, a lack of drama or ideas on the stage wouldn’t be much of a problem – it’s one of the issues with Aida – if only the singers were capable of making up for the slack elsewhere. Unfortunately, there’s not much in the way of strong singing to sufficiently redeem this production. Marco Berti has a fine tone of voice as Radamès, but his technique is all off and his ‘Celeste Aida’ is a struggle. He comes through however in Act IV where it counts. Luciana D’Intino is a weak Amneris, her singing shrill and unpleasant, without sufficient force or personality to carry the role – an unfortunate drawback, since it’s this character who has perhaps the most important central role in the opera. Hui Hei’s Aida is about the best there is here, her Act III duets coming over well, particularly her duet with a fine Ambrogio Maestri as Amanasro. Without a strong enough Amneris however to hammer home Act IV after the rallying that comes through from the cast and orchestra in Act III, it’s all to little avail.

Aida

There are no extra features on the Blu-ray, so the single-layer BD25 is generally fine for the two-and-a-half hour opera. The image quality is excellent throughout, 1080i full-HD, with only a little sign of compression artefacts during a couple of faster pans of the camera. The audio tracks are the customary PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 and there’s a decent tone and clarity to both. Subtitles are in Italian, English, German, French, Spanish and Korean. The disc is All Region.