First performed at La Fenice in Venice in 1844, Ernani is early, unsophisticated Verdi and all the more fun for that. Why it is so rarely performed is a mystery. The plot (based on a play by Victor Hugo) is no more ridiculous than many a popular opera and although an older and more experienced Verdi might have made the tragic ending a little more telling, the whole work is full of glorious music.
The producer (Mike Ashman) has followed an earlier Elija Moshinsky production for Welsh National Opera and the evening is unashamedly traditional: a welcome change for anyone weary of ultra-sophisticated monochrome and minimalist presentations.
Set in Spain in the early 16th Century, against severe mirror-black marble floor and cleverly movable walls, scene after scene presents the glowing colours and fantastically elaborate costumes straight from a Velázquez painting.
Indeed the first stunning entrance of the heroine Elvira, motionless in a large doorway with blue light behind her, gives just that impression. When she advances into the room and the walls close behind her, so that she is trapped with her own subdued reflection bouncing off every surface, we know she is not going to have much control over her own fate.
As indeed is the case, for poor Elvira is being fought over by three suitors: Ernani, a nobleman in political exile disguised as a bandit; the new King of Spain, Carlo; and her own uncle and guardian who plans to marry her and is extremely miffed when the other two get in the way. Elvira (Sandra Ford) both looks and sounds exquisite and effortlessly floats her voice, in true Verdian style, over both orchestra and (huge) chorus. Ernani is sung by the Australian Julian Gavin – a believable hero in looks and stature and with a pure tenor voice of great beauty.
However he has good competition in the vocal stakes as Don Carlo is sung by Alan Opie, a great ENO stalwart in fine form, and Elvira’s uncle Silva is Peter Rose, whose rich bass makes this a more sympathetic character than perhaps it deserves.
David Parry conducts with great sympathy and achieves a lush sound from the (always reliable) ENO orchestra. Best of all, he allows the enthusiasm of early Verdi full rein. When combined with a fine cast, the visual delights of the production and some very atmospheric lighting from John Bishop, the result is a very special evening.