Although not as obscure as some of the other pieces which the Chelsea Opera Group has tackled, Verdi’s fifth opera Ernani of 1844 is still a rarity in the opera house, making the opportunity to hear this concert performance, conducted by Robin Newton, very welcome indeed.
Set in sixteenth century Spain, Ernani sees the eponymous outlaw love Elvira, who the elderly Don Ruy Gomez de Silva plans to marry. After Don Carlo, the King of Spain, whose father murdered Ernani’s own, also desires her and takes her as his hostage, Ernani persuades Silva to form an alliance to rescue Elvira and kill the King. As a guarantee Ernani gives him a horn and swears that he forfeits his life to Silva any time that he chooses to blow it.
In the event, however, Don Carlo is elected Holy Roman Emperor and, in an attempt to emulate the virtues of Charlemagne, pardons all those who plotted against him and gives Elvira to Ernani. A happy ending thus looks to be on the cards until Silva holds Ernani to his previous promise regarding the sounding of the horn and, despite Elvira’s protestations, forces him to die.
One of the opera’s key ideas is the placing of honour above either love or life. Although this is a classic theme in literature, the way in which it manifests itself in this plot seems strange. The love that Ernani, Silva and to a lesser extent Don Carlo show for Elvira supposedly overpowers all else, and yet in the case of each something comes to stand in the way as being more important. For example, Silva would like to have Ernani out of the way as a rival for Elvira’s affections, and yet after he ends up hiding him in his house, even the King’s command cannot persuade him to hand him over because the Silva family has never betrayed anyone.
Similarly, Ernani’s apparently overwhelming love for Elvira is eclipsed by his desire to murder the King out of vengeance, even when he knows such an act could lead to his death and hence them never being together. At the end he puts his word to Silva above Elvira’s love and needs, while prior to this Don Carlo also voluntarily gives her up as he seeks to replicate Charlemagne’s virtues.
All of the musical traits we have come to associate with Verdi are in this opera, and if anything laid on a little thick over its four acts. Representing something of a departure from his first four operas, Ernani suggests that part of Verdi’s later development involved bringing more refinement and integrity to the style and approach that was obviously his from early on. By the same token, however, the performance of the opera proved very exciting as so much beautiful and rousing music was to be heard over its three hour running time.
In the compact Queen Elizabeth Hall the four main principals filled the air with some thrilling sounds. The few imperfections there were mattered very little, and in no way detracted from the polish brought to the majority of the singing. In the title role Gwyn Hughes Jones asserted his tenor voice to produce a broad, expansive sound, and his performance of his opening aria ‘Come rugiada al cespite’ was particularly persuasive. Helena Dix was a magnetic Elvira with an upper register of piercing brilliance and a lower register of notable strength.
This concert performance possessed few visual embellishments, with the soloists generally entering when they were first needed in the respective half, and sitting for those parts of its remainder in which they were not. However, with such feeling demonstrated by each performer, one could really believe that Don Carlo was hiding in the vault that contained the tomb of Charlemagne as in ‘Oh de’ verd’ anni miei’ Gerard Quinn brought a genuine sense of humility to his firm baritone. Jihoon Kim was also splendid as Silva, frequently bringing sensitivity and subtlety to his rich bass, while Erica Eloff as Giovanna, Christopher Turner as Don Riccardo and Matthew Sprange as Jago all provided excellent support.
The Chelsea Opera Group also made this performance a first in one respect. Verdi added Ernani’s aria ‘Sprezzo la vita né più m’alletta’ at the end of Act II for the performance in Parma in December 1844 to show off the talents of the tenor Nicolas Ivanoff, and to fulfill a request made by Rossini. This version of the Act II finale had never before been performed in London.
The Chelsea Opera Group, conducted by Anthony Negus, will perform Wagner’s Das Liebesverbot at Cadogan Hall on 25 October 2015.