A Black man with a beard, wearing a dark frock coat, trousers, and boots, kneels on the left. On the right, a redheaded white woman in along silvery flowered gown kneels next to him and clutches at his arm. His eyes are closed. She has a pleading look upon her face.
Russell Thomas as Ernani and Tamara Wilson as Elvira in Lyric Opera's Ernani Credit: Cory Weaver

Thanks to CNN, this weekend I went right from Lyric Opera’s season-opening production of Ernani—featuring Charles V of Spain—to the pomp and circumstance surrounding the launch of Charles III of England.

Castles, crowns, cannons—it was all of a piece.  

And that did something I hadn’t anticipated: it brought an evening of seldom-seen Verdi to life.  

Ernani
Through 10/1: Fri 9/16 7 PM, Wed 9/21 2 PM, Sun 9/25 2 PM, and Sat 10/1 7:30 PM, Lyric Opera, 20 W. Wacker; lyricopera.org, 312-827-5600, $40-$330

As we’ve had occasion to note before, sometimes, when things are rarely seen, there’s a reason. In this case, following Lyric’s relatively new music director Enrique Mazzola (in his second season) down the rabbit hole of all things early Verdi takes us to an opera plot so blatantly melodramatic it had some in the audience snickering when they should have been shocked.

This is the dreaded territory of unintentional humor. Victor Hugo, who wrote the play that inspired Ernani, couldn’t disassociate himself fast enough.

Laughable fealty to irrelevant codes of honor? Yes. Unbelievable reversals? Yes. A king so smitten he risks an empire just to get into the pants of his (seemingly pretty ordinary but off-limits) object of desire? Yes!

We should no doubt cut Verdi and his librettist, Francesco Maria Piave, some slack; this 1844 opera was their first collaboration. They might not even be responsible for the pop-up ghost. But the story is so ludicrous, they might as well have had their King Charles imagining life as a tampon.

Who would believe it?

There’s no chemistry in this stand-and-sing production, directed by Louisa Muller. But there’s some fine singing of a difficult bel canto score, especially by tenor Russell Thomas as the title character, and two familiar alumni of Lyric’s Ryan Opera Center: baritone Quinn Kelsey as the king, and bass-baritone Christian Van Horn as a villainous uncle. All three aspire to bed, er, wed, the woman in question, Elvira, who’s powerfully, if not always sweetly, sung by soprano Tamara Wilson. The Lyric Opera chorus looks as good as it sounds in sumptuous costumes by production designer Scott Marr, and the excellent Lyric Opera orchestra is conducted by Mazzola.

Thank you Brits! Long live the King! (And if you’re leaving a bouquet in honor of your “late sovereign of happy memory,” as I heard it put this morning, please remove the wrapper. Flowers are beautiful; wrappers are trash. Critics can’t stop noticing.)