ERNANI – VERDI – ENGLISH NATIONAL OPERA
On 16 May 2000 I saw the ENO’s production of Verdi’s Ernani at the Coliseum, conducted by David Parry. The libretto is by Francesco Maria Piave based on Victor Hugo’s drama Hernani. After the premiere in Venice in 1844 it was the first of Verdi’s works to bring him fame outside Italy. Ernani was performed by Julian Gavin, Don Carlos (King of Spain) by veteran Alan Opie, Don Ruy Gomes de Silva (a Spanish grandee) by Peter Rose, Elvira his niece and betrothed by Sandra Ford, Don Riccardi (the King’s equerry) by Richard Roberts.
The work is a stirring example of early Verdi though Hugo considered it a travesty of his play. It is a story of bandits, political intrigue and power. Set in Aragon, it concerns the outlaw and bandit Ernani’s love for Donna Elvira, who is betrothed to an elderly Spanish grandee. Don Carlo, the new king of Spain is also in love with Elvira. Elvira refuses both the grandee and the king! The opera has a unique recipe. Instead of the usual love triangle Elvira is being pursued by three raging egoists – tenor, baritone and bass, all obsessed with honour, career and family (at one stage Silva has dialogues with his portrait gallery in the castle).
Don Riccardo play’s the King’s equerry, one of a faithful band around the King who vows that the new monarchy will pledge to destroy the old, feudal dukedoms. The sealing of the pledge in a short duet is strengthened by the choral interjections in the opera at this point. As well as King of Spain, Don Carlo is Holy Roman Emperor to be and wishes to use his power for worthwhile ends. Sandra Ford as Elvira is scarcely consulted by her suitors but gives an engaging performance - ENO has found its Verdi soprano for the new century. Alan Opie, who first sang a Verdi lead at the Coliseum 30 years ago, continues to defy the passage of time with his effortless top notes and scrupulous mastery of style as Don Carlo. He has a delectable catchy love song and this must be Opie’s most romantic role ever as he is usually cast as a comedian!
There are some gems in the score – “O sommo Carlo”, “Great heavens…when I was young and trusting…” And the great conspirators’ chorus “Let the Lion of Castile awaken” strengthens a major dramatic moment. There is a touch of Romeo and Juliet about the ending. Ernani commits suicide by dagger. Before dying he commands Elvira to live (they had both been offered poison). She faints and he alone dies. Silvia gloats at his triumph.