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Bucking a mean swashle

05/07/2000 -  and 11,16, 19, 25, 27 May, 2, 8, 15 June 2000
Giuseppe Verdi, Ernani
Julian Gavin (Ernani), Alan Opie (Don Carlos), Peter Rose (Silva), Sandra Ford (Elvira), Claire Weston (Giovanna), Richard Roberts (Don Riccardo), Paul Hodges (Jago)
David Parry (conductor), Mike Ashman (director)

ENO Chorus and Orchestra Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

The ENO's production of Ernani is new to the house, but it is based on Elijah Moshinsky's 1979 production for the Welsh National Opera. It is the most conventional opera production to appear at the Coliseum since perhaps Philip Prowse's Pearl Fishers. But it is extremely entertaining nonsense and needs only four substantial singers (though they have to sing relentlessly), so it looks set to join the Pearl Fishers in the pack-em-in-with-a-rarity strand of the ENO repertoire.

Ernani, first performed in 1844, is based fairly closely on a play by Victor Hugo, with a quasi-Shakespearian plot that focusses on politics and honour. There is a doomed romantic hero, his obsessively honorable rival in love, a tough beloved, and a lowlife who becomes noble when he is declared Holy Roman Emperor. But musically it is old-fashioned bel canto, and for a modern audience there is a mismatch between the apparently cheerful music and the comparatively complex drama, as there is in Il trovatore. And although the Marx brothers didn't touch Ernani, Gilbert and Sullivan certainly did.

The ENO's generally effective, and not too expensive, approach was to cast singing actors whose voices might not satisfy purists in an international production but who delivered a full-strength drama and a performance of the music that as a miminum did not undermine it. Sandra Ford as Elvira was tough, well on top of the notes but not quite a diva. Peter Rose, who was Silva, in fact has a track-record in international productions, and a stunning voice. But he is also a fine actor, making Silva generally sympathetic  and carrying the action both musically and dramatically. He was very moving in his  declaration of love for Elivra -- he's down for Gremin next season -- and portentous as the last-act monk, who works so well you can see why Verdi recycled him in Don Carlos, where he makes no sense at all. Julian Gavin was a charismatic Ernani, perhaps more Mel Gibson than Erroll Flynn, and in spite of some rough moments definitely in the ball-park vocally. Alan Opie was complex and frightening as Don Carlos.

Moshinky's production is essentially stand-and-deliver, relying on the singers to carry the drama, as they certainly did. Maria Bjornson's design, a black-and-silver unit set with brightly-coloured costumes based on sixteenth-century Spanish paintings, provided a powerful visual spectacle that distanced the production from any stereotypes of Italian opera and placed it firmly as a dark, romantic view of the sixteenth century.

The chorus, and the ENO orchestra under David Parry, were forceful and enjoyable.

H.E. Elsom



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