Can Belto

On the art of singing and those who practice it…

Elvira rescue me…

I just came back from Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Ernani. I was very exited because until yesterday, it was an opera I had yet to experience in the flesh. Verdi’s music and story (or at least most of it) made for a great evening.  Ernani deals with the quartet of the bandit Ernani (in reality the nobleman Don Juan de Aragon) Charles V, Don Ruy Gomez de Silva and Elvira. All men are after Elvira but Elvira only has eyes for Ernani. After several frustrated attempts by all the men to either force Elvira into marriage, kidnap her and/or rescue her; and a conspiracy to kill the king, King Charles V relents and gives Elvira to Ernani in marriage. On their wedding day, Don Ruy comes to claim a debt that Ernani has on him (Don Ruy saved Ernani’s head and he gave Don Ruy a horn and promised that whenever Silva was ready, he would kill himself as price from saving him). Don Ruy, who has not forgiven Ernani from stealing Elvira from him decides that if he can not have Elvira, neither can Ernani, so on their wedding night he comes into the party with the horn, and blows on it like it is the new year. Ernani, knowing what he has promised, kisses Elvira and promptly kills himself rather than live without honor. My one caveat (and it is only mine) is the fact that during Act 4, I just could not suspend belief. I just kept wanting Ernani or Elvira to take that damn horn from don Ruy’s hands and shove it where the sun doesn’t shine and send him to die the lonely and bitter dead that he deserves.  Ernani is a beautiful story, but that last act was hard for me to separate from my XXth century eyes and see it from their perpsctive. The music, on the other hand was just beautiful.

LOC presented a very traditional production designed by Scott Marr  and built by San Diego Opera. It looked just gorgeous (Let’s hope the sets and costumes survived SDO’s demise) {Thanks to SDO for the correction and best wishes with their season. Boy do I feel dumb!} The costumes, also by Marr were suptous in their vivid detail and meticulous construction. Marr’s attention to detail showed up even in the care he lavished in the chorus. There was not one simple, or careless stitch to be seen on stage. Bravo. The set was for the most part a unit set that consisted on a grand floor and multiple pieces (walls, chairs, etc) to change the location and the ambiance. It all worked to perfection.

The LOC orchestra once again showed why they are one of the premiere orchestras in any opera house in the USA. Their playing was a model of refinement and care for the singers. Too often we are treated with operas where the orchestra does their thing and ends up covering the singers in the climatic moments; not here. Credit must be given to Maestro Renato Palumbo for ensuring that the singers were audible at all moments. Too bad, maestro Palumbo decided not to give us enough Verdi. The edition presented by LOC was truncated by cuts coming from left, right, up, down and center. There were no 2nd verses to any cabaletta and the ensembles were shred to mere sketches. All in all, I think we lost about 45-60 minutes of music. I understand the need to keep a tight reign on over time, but I am not sure we gave Verdi the chance to make all his musical points. No 2nd verses meant that the opera was performed exactly as written, no ornamentation and thus no bel canto per se. There must be a way for Verdi, the audiences and the musicians to be able to perform and enjoy these works how they were meant to be presented and enjoyed. I for once would have loved to see Ernani performed as a bel canto opera, with Verdi’s gorgeous music and with ornamentations by the singers. How about more Verdi the next time boys?

I wish I could be more enthusiastic about the singing as I was about the music. As the title of my review probably clues you, the night belonged to Sondra Radvanovsky. It was my first time experiencing this artist on the flesh and she delivered in spades. Ms. Radvanovsky proved that her career is no fluke or owed to an aggressive PR dept. Her singing was a marvel of nuances, beautiful phrasing, close attention to the text and marvelous acting. During her Ernani involami her voice rang out to the house with sweetness and power. She sounded (all the way on the 3rd balcony) like she was singing next to me. My ears rang with her singing and I was instantly in love. Her voice has a nice size and it can handle Verdi’s intricate writing of the cabaletta (ONE DAMN VERSE!; OK, I need to let it go…). It is a blessing that we now have a true Lirico-spinto who can sing bel canto (as opposed to can belto, which is more common) with ease, including a true trill. All in all, Ms. Radvanovsky more than earned her ovation at the end. Latter on I had the pleasure of meeting her briefly and my friend Ronizetti and I learned that she had performed the entire night wearing a cast on her right leg; and on a raked stage, mind you.  Brava for this Hoosier girl, she stole the show and kicked ass (Literally. In CA about a month ago she kicked a man that attempted to rob her. As Mr. T would say, I pity the fool)

Salvatore Licitra’s Ernani need not rescuing anyone. As a matter of fact, it was Verdi who should’ve been rescued from what Signor Licitra inflicted on him. What infuriates me the most is the fact that the voice is gorgeous and it more than fills the vocal requirements of the role. His unsupported barking and unrefined singing made me wish he had stayed home. His performance had a complete lack of style, finesse and artistry. He uses his voice like a canon, and like a canon, it is only effective when unleashed; and I doubt that Verdi would have been pleased with a tenor who showed such lack of care in his phrasing and his attention to dynamics.  He is also a technical mess. The lower register is uncharacteristically baritonal for a man his age (41, to be exact); the middle is OK, but looses focus here and there and his passagio is completely unresolved. Once he hits the E above middle C it is hit or miss; some notes are covered and some notes are spread. This gives the higher notes under Bb a hit or miss quality as well. His act 1 cabaletta was a mess. He was covered by the chorus in all the mid-high parts and then the Bb was almost inaudible. I am sure his high notes on stage are huge, but they do not carry pass the orchestra and that is not good. Signor Licitra’s Ernani was a trial and at the end he was unable to portray neither bandit, lover or nobleman convincingly…

Which begs the question: What do opera companies see in him? Yes, the voice is big, but what good does that do when you are inaudible in the moments where you should be? What good does it do when the singing is unrefined and sounds unschooled? What good does it do when audiences who do not know better use this as their benchmark for greatness? Do opera companies think this is a game of Gotcha!?  Do you opera companies actually think that we do not know the difference? Rest assured, many don’t but some of us do, and we need to call you out on this practice of record company casting. Yes, the singers are famous because they have a recording contract, but that does not mean they are the best available, or they are worthy to be shoved on stage. In the case of Licitra, he might study with Bergonzi (opera royalty, as far as I am concerned) but his plebeian singing does not  make him a good fit for the stage. Let him record his arias and sell concert tickets, please do not shove him on our faces until he is truly ready to sing with the finesse and artistry this profession demands.  The fact that he had to face such a refined singer in Ms. Radvanovsky put in perspective all his shortcomings.

Unfortunately, Signor Licitra was not the only one who failed to deliver the goods. Boaz Daniel (Charles V) and Giacomo Prestia (Don Ruy Gomes de Silva) also came way short tonight. Mr. Prestia took quite a while to warm up and after a precarious Infelice on act 1, he proceeded to deliver a stiff Silva that was also short on bel canto, short on menace and ultimately short on impact. Mr. Daniel didn’t fair much better. He looked fantastic as Carlo V, if I had been Elvira I would have chosen him on looks and bearing alone;  his singing was not so regal. He showed signs of strain, attaining a nasal quality way too often. His phrasing was labored, his low notes not really resonating and his high ones lacked true power. His intonation also gave him some grief, specially at the end of both his arias. His singing, left me with the impression that he was sick or fighting something (no announcement was made); for his sake I do hope this was the case.

The small roles of Giovanna, Jago and Riccardo were cast from strength. Ryan Opera Center members Kathryn Leemhuis (Giovanna), Paul Corona (Jago) and Rene Barbera (Riccardo) all sang with conviction and a great deal of security that was completely lacking in some of the principals. They all deserve mention because their singing showed much promise. Great job you guys! Let’s hope for bigger and better things from all of you.

So there you have it. Ernani was the one who needed rescueing at LOC. Thank God Sondra Radvanovsky came like a knight(ess) in shinning armor.


November 22, 2009 - Posted by | Opera Review |


  1. Thanks for the review! I was hoping to see this production with my mom (my opera mentor). I love Ernani and have never had the opportunity to see it, but unfortunately we just couldn’t get our act together enough to plan it with the rest of our vacation. (We ended up see a version of Pagliacci at a local operahouse which would make Bondy look like the height of opulence! ;))

    Anyway, I’m sorry to hear the male voices weren’t that good, as their music is one of the things I love about Ernani, particularly Don Carlo’s arias and the conspiracy part. Still would’ve loved to see it.

    Comment by felicia | November 22, 2009 | Reply

  2. Good Review. I have been grudgingly beginning to really like Radvanovsky. I still do not think it is first rate vocal material but what she does with it is first rate and then some. She is a magnificent singer saddled with a not very remarkable vocal quality. I find the voice unmemorable if the singing itself is totally memorable. Does that make sense? It just is not a first rate sound – at least – not like a Tebaldi, a Ponselle, a Milanov, or a Price. I was at the Millo recital in New York the other day. Very instructive. Here is a great natural instrument attached to a totally kookie but lovable woman, a career that basically self destructed. If Radvanovsky had Millo’s vocal quality – she would be one of the great singers of the last 50 years. No doubt about it. BTW, Millo’s voice is still gorgeous and basically in very fine shape. The gown – Oy – This diva needs a few fags in her life. She has them – but they don’t have any taste – or at least, haven’t been able to impart it on her. In her own weird way, she did look fabulous. The gown was sort of a black and white version of what Scarlett O’Hara wore after she attacked the drapes. I guess she wanted to look like a mid 19th century diva. Massive bazooms btw. Don’t know if that helps with the resonance. I know they are probably hell on her back.

    Comment by Don Levine | November 22, 2009 | Reply

  3. I could not agree with you more about Licitra. Every time I have heard him, I have the same reaction; the sound could be beautiful, but he has no idea how to sing. He has no technique, breath control, or elegant style. Hoorey for Radvanovsky.

    Comment by Joe Tempest | November 22, 2009 | Reply

  4. “The rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated”

    San Diego Opera is alive and well. Perhaps you have us confused with Opera Pacific?

    Our season begins 1/30/2010 with Piotr Beczala and Anja Harteros in LA BOHEME and continues with NABUCCO, ROMEO AND JULIET and LA TRAVIATA.

    Additionally , our Scenic Studio continues to build sets for the leading Companies of the world.

    The Ernani sets are quite wonderful. Chicago owns these, having been built by us.

    Comment by Edward Wilensky | November 22, 2009 | Reply

  5. I moved from Chicago in 2000…and ushered at the Civic Opera House for at least thirty years. Question: When did they insert a third balcony????

    Thanks for the wonderful review of Ernani.

    Paaul Fornatar

    Comment by Paul Fornatar | November 22, 2009 | Reply

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