English National Opera @ The Coliseum, London, 7, 11, 16, 18, 22, 24, 30 June, 2 July 2004
This is a fun night at the opera.
Verdi aficionados will love it because Ernani is so rarely seen or heard. Had it been the only known output of a virtually unknown composer - say Giovanni Rosso - it would never be seen or heard, because it is at best unmemorable. At worst...well, there is no at worst for Verdi aficionados.
The "man in the street" whom English National Opera is trying to turn into the man in the seat will like Ernani because it is immediately accessible music - the oom-pah-pah burden to most arias has not yet been placed under crowd control as in Rigoletto.
The movable sets are affecting in the way they compose and decompose, especially emphasised by the highly effective lighting, reinforcing the impenetrable complexity of the story (important exception: the balcony, which serves no purpose in driving the story and is usually merely a source of distraction). Here it has to be admitted that the diction of all the principals is outstanding in its clarity and aided by the sympathetic conducting of this the finest of London's orchestras by Mark Shanahan.
To all opera buffs this production by Elijah Moshinsky (Director), first seen in 2000, at least in this reincarnation, will raise many questions about his intentions - if not about Verdi's. The Errol Flynn sword gestures, the period acting of the principals, suggest that Moshinsky is parodying early twentieth-century Technicolour cinematic performances. Verdi's music seems at times to be poking fun at Donizetti. The whole thing could be an elaborate send-up - but a send-up of what? - the signs are ambiguous. The first sight of Elvira is a coup de theatre taken from Velasquez, but the rest of the costumes do not make the same impact, and at times the goings-on resemble a costume ball.
Music lovers will welcome this revival of a little-known Verdi gem (rhinestone rather than pearl). All will delight in the soaring high notes, without surrendering clarity, and tonal suavity of Cara O'Sullivan as Elvira. On the first night she rightly received the greatest acclaim. However, Alastair Miles's Silva and - strikingly - Rhys Meirion's Ernani will live in one's memory - and there is the hope that a record company will pick them up soon. All were hampered by the appallingly insensitive English translation.
Why do today's producers so often raise the curtain on the overture and then, faced with a good many minutes dramatically unscripted, accompanied by music that generally alludes to every aspect of the narrative to follow, find they have no option but to send a principal wandering around the stage striking adolescent poses? Piave's libretto does not lend itself to psychological penetration, and the initial establishment of Ernani as a deeply troubled young man is at odds with role as a bandit leader; so, the first scene sets the quasi-parodic tone for what is to follow.