United Kingdom Verdi, Ernani: Soloists, Chelsea Opera Group Chorus and Orchestra/Robin Newton (conductor). Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 3.7.2015. (JPr)
Gwyn Hughes Jones: Ernani
Helena Dix: Elvira
Erica Eloff: Giovanna
Gerard Quinn: Don Carlo
Jihoon Kim: Don Ruy Gomez de Silva
Matthew Sprange: Jago
Christopher Turner: Don Riccardo
Ernani was Verdi’s fifth opera and he had only just turned 30 … it was a success in 1844 and has been either revered or ridiculed ever since! It would be several years before his major mid-career works (Il trovatore, Rigoletto, and La traviata). The major flaw in this work – the repetitive early Verdi ‘rum-ti-tum’ music notwithstanding – is its ridiculous story and it is a case of ‘abandon all hope (of plausibility) ye who enter here’.
The convoluted libretto was by Francesco Maria Piave and is supposed to have actually improved on its source text, Victor Hugo’s 1830 Hernani that caused its own stir when first staged. The confusion arises through too many changes of ‘heart’ amongst the four principal characters who all want to marry Elvira, the maid-in-the-castle. Firstly she is betrothed to her elderly cousin, Silva, but actually loves Ernani, the disgraced nobleman who is in disguise and has become a bandit and later will appear as a pilgrim. Add to this Don Carlo, the King of Spain, wants to spirit her away at the same time when he should be concentrating on getting himself elected as Holy Roman Emperor. Silva saves Ernani’s life and they form an uneasy alliance to save Elvira from Don Carlo’s clutches and vow get revenge on him. I hope you are following this so far? However Ernani’s pact with Silva involves him agreeing to die almost anytime Silva wants by giving him a horn to blow! Don Carlo is elected Emperor and in an incredible about-turn renounces his claim on Elvira, pardons Ernani and agrees they can marry. At the sound of a horn call the tragic ending is ensured, Silva appears, and redeems Ernani’s pledge. The latter stabs himself and he dies in Elvira’s arms. I’ve used this summary before but this remains – I think – about as good an account of the ludicrous plot as you are ever likely to read!
A programme note told us that ‘In tonight’s performance of Ernani there will be one significant departure from the traditional score. In December 1844 Ernani was to be given at Parma. Singing the title role was Nicola Ivanoff, a Russian tenor much favoured by Rossini. In November Rossini wrote to Verdi asking him to write a bravura aria for Ivanoff to sing in place of the existing Act II finale … As far as we have been able to discover, this is the first time this music has been heard in London.’
Despite the score’s longueurs, the one-dimensional characters, a lack of ‘theatre’ (I will discuss later) and the sultry conditions in the Queen Elizabeth Hall on a hot July evening in London, the evening flew by … and that is to the credit of all concerned. There was some good singing and vocal acting in an opera that is basically a repetitive sequence of arias, duets and choruses. Characters express their love for one another and also offer their head, demand vengeance and go off to fight all to the same fairly jolly sounding music that reminding me of ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’ which is sung during the crucifixion at the end of Monty Python’s Life of Brian.
If you are going to sit through Ernani, you need to be listening to good singers and this is something COG have a knack of hiring. Gwyn Hughes Jones had a tireless, fresh, ringing sound with hints of future Otellos or Tristans in his voice. There were few deep musical insights (which are barely found in the score anyway) and he mostly eschewed what I suspect were higher options at the end of arias or duets but he was meltingly lyrical and impassioned throughout.
His partner was the young Australian soprano, Helena Dix, who covered her role of Elvira for the 2015 Ernani at the Met. She looks and sounds like a young Rita Hunter though currently her voice lacks the warmth of a Verdian soprano. She certainly knows how to respect the composer’s line and has fine breath control and infinite vocal resources. However, the way she hurled her voice into the Queen Elizabeth Hall – and as her short biography suggests – her future will possibly involve more Wagner than Verdi. Gerard Quinn was a redoubtable Don Carlo and even if his voice perhaps lacks some of the baritonal sheen the role needs he sang well throughout and impressed with his declaration of love (Vieni meco) and his Act III Oh de’ verd’ anni miei was brooding and particularly weighty and stylish. Jihoon Kim as the honourable and implacable Silva was perhaps the best of the quartet of principals and he as well as Helena Dix were ‘off the book’ and knew their roles … and it helped their performances enormously. Erica Eloff, Matthew Sprange and Christopher Turner were all very accomplished in the smaller roles. The orchestra played sturdily for their conductor, Robin Newton, and the chorus sang valiantly during all of Verdi’s blood-and-thunder ensembles and especially during the Act III Si ridesti il Leon di Castiglia. I will not dwell on this but both the orchestra and the chorus clearly could do with some younger blood and I wonder why some of London’s many music colleges could not help with this?
The rarely performed Ernani is an opera I have only previously seen as a cinema broadcast and not truly live before. In their long distinguished history opportunities such as this is what Chelsea Opera Group have given many audiences over the years. However, time has moved on and there is so much concert opera these days that the days of staring at an array of singers at their music stands for over two and a half hours with some singers who know their roles trying to interact with others with their heads firmly in their scores have mostly passed. I admit I have put these sort of performances on myself in the past but I am not saying anything new here. Their first performance I saw was probably Tannhäuser in 1995 and writing for Wagner News then I would have mentioned the music stands … as I tend to do for virtually every concert-version of an opera I attend. There have been admirable attempts at the BBC Proms and elsewhere to bring the drama back to these sort of evenings that makes the approach of COG – and with the greatest respect to all they have done since 1950 – now look rather old-fashioned. This apart – and looking ahead to October – opportunities such as presenting the wonderful Wagnerian Anthony Negus conduct an all-too-rare outing for Wagner’s Das Liebesverbot should not be missed.
For more about Chelsea Opera Group visit www.chelseaoperagroup.org.uk.