Stage Director
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Love, Renaissance style
<span id="gallery-cutline">The Spanish king's elaborate yet stark throne room, inspired by the works of Renaissance artists, symbolizes the monarch's lonely lifestyle.<br /></span>
<span id="gallery-cutline">The Spanish king's elaborate yet stark throne room, inspired by the works of Renaissance artists, symbolizes the monarch's lonely lifestyle.<br /></span>
Photo courtesy of "Ernani" director Jose Maria Condemi

Grand opera requires a grand-slam approach.

Lyric Opera's new production of "Ernani" -- Verdi's little-heard melodrama about three men vying for the same woman -- is destined for bravos for sheer spectacle. The curtains rise Tuesday on a production both minimalist and monumental.

Think a bandit's camp dwarfed by an oversized moon. Or a Moorish fantasy of a throne room dominated by two stark thrones. Or a tiled garden with splashing fountain.

Salvatore Licitra stars as the title outlaw, a man of honor desperate to win the lovely Elvira (Sondra Radvanovsky) from her aged fiance (Giacomo Prestia) and a royal arch rival (Boaz Daniel).

Production design director Scott Marr gives credit where due. The painting-like sets were inspired by paintings.

Italian composer Verdi based his four-act romance in Renaissance Spain. Greco-Roman traditions were the rage. So the Lyric's first staging of "Ernani" in a quarter-century pays homage to El Greco and other period artists.

Since a tour of Madrid's famous El Prado Museum was impractical, Marr headed to the Art Institute. There he sat in front of El Greco's "The Assumption of the Virgin" for "a really long time," he said. "It's remarkable."

The giant masterpiece depicts Mary, a vision in deep blue, suspended between earth and angels. For Marr, the fusion of drama, symbolism and Renaissance style resonated. He began scrutinizing other paintings.

According to director Jose Maria Condemi, his collaborator's research was exhaustive.

Marr "literally bombarded me with hundreds and hundreds of images," Condemi said, laughing. In their pursuit of historical accuracy, they analyzed renderings of 16th century architecture, furnishings, dress, even fixtures like multicandle chandeliers. The challenge "was not so much designing, or finding common ground, but editing," the director said.

At one point, the pair was preoccupied by the lace on Elvira's gowns. "He kept sending me all these images of lace, how it was used in costumes," Condemi said.

More than 50 carpenters built the sets, with an in-house welder devising the "antique" chandeliers. Donna Langman stitched the principals' outfits in New York while Kitty Schweitzer ("The Untouchables," "Shrek the Musical") toiled over some 200 costumes for the chorus and extras at her Racine, Wis.,-based shop.

Seamstress Kitty Schweitzer ("The Untouchables," "Shrek the Musical") stitched most of the 246 costumes at her Racine, Wis.,-based shop. Enterprising designs (the king's palace has a faux-marble floor) kept the Lyric within its six-figure budget.

The results: A production that promises to be worthy of Verdi's arias.

Neither Condemi nor Marr worry whether the sets might steal the show.

Opera "is so sublime, in my belief ... so high and hypnotic, it soars," Marr said. "The visuals have to hold that and rise to the occasion. I hope I do them (the cast) justice."

Molly Moulfe, NWI.com
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