NEW YORK — In an era of overthinking directors, intricate stage movements and concept productions that transport operas through time and locale, there is an argument for Verdi the way it used to be.
Especially when a rare soprano like Angela Meade commands the night.
The Metropolitan Opera's revival of "Ernani" that opened Thursday could have passed for a staging from the 1950s, with oversized doors, paintings and staircases creating a realistic depiction of 16th-century Spain and Germany. Singers walked on, spread their arms or clasped their hands and delivered their arias in the manner of the much-maligned "park and bark" style of the past.
And, you know what? It was a highly entertaining performance, with baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, bass Ferruccio Furlanetto and tenor Roberto De Biasio combining for some vocal fireworks that more than made up for any dramatic shortcomings.
Then a 30-year-old vocal student, Meade made her professional debut as Elvira on the second night of the Met's 2008 revival of "Ernani" when Sondra Radvanovsky became ill with a viral infection. The promise she showed then has been fulfilled, and she has become a young dramatic coloratura of choice for Verdi. Now 34, she has just won the Beverly Sills Artist Award for young singers and the Richard Tucker Award.
A large woman, she could not be slotted into some of the Met's edgier productions, such as Willy Decker's minimalist version of Verdi's "La Traviata" that will return this spring. But for pure singing, she is one vocal thrill after another. Her forte notes are true to the top of the register, her piano notes glisten and her improved lower tones growl with ferocity. Her cavatina "Ernani, Ernani, involami (Ernani, Ernani, save me)" was among the moments of the Met season, with Meade displaying disciplined breath control in her coloratura.
Elvira is in a love quadrangle, courted by Ernani (a bandit who had been Don Juan of Aragon), King Carlo V (who is about to become the Holy Roman Emperor) and Don Ruy Gomez de Silva (her uncle). Francesco Maria Piave's libretto, based on Victor Hugo's play "Hernani," is more than a bit of a soap opera with its intertwined plots against and support of the king, but one that moves along breezily.
Furlanetto, now 62, was the one principal singer who combined voice and acting. With bright white hair and a beard, he gave dignity and pain to Silva, who plots revenge against Ernani for disrupting his planned marriage to Elvira, then almost gleefully insists that Ernani, as a matter of honor, must fulfill his suicide-on-demand pledge. At times he sang with a gruffness quite appropriate for the aged character.
Hvorostovsky, his long, white silvery hair draping over the collar of his gold king suit, was a dashing Carlo. His voice had trouble opening up at times and was a bit breathy, and he struck some stiff regal poses, but he sang passionately.
De Biasio was a replacement for the late Salvatore Licitra in the title role and had only one previous performance at the Met, taking over Gabriele Adorno for the first performance of Verdi's "Simon Boccanegra" last season when Ramon Vargas got sick. His voice is youthful and pliant, filled with color, but it lost a tiny bit of its luster when pushed.
Mixing all this together was conductor Marco Armiliato, who emphasized Verdi's bouncy rhythms over texture.
Pier Luigi Samaritani's production, which dates from 1983, had not been seen for 23 years before the 2008 revival. It originally was a vehicle for Luciano Pavarotti for the Met's 100th-anniversary season.
Peter J. Hall's costumes are colorful and glamorous, frocks that any imperial court would be happy to attire its attendants in.
There are five more performances through Feb. 25, the last of which will be broadcast to theaters around the world in high-definition. Marcello Giordani sings the final three Carlos, a role he performed at the Met four years ago.