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S & H Opera Review

Verdi, Ernani Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera/Mark Shanahan. London Coliseum, Friday, June 11th, 2004 (CC)


It was excellent to see and hear real care lavished on a Verdi opera that lies outside of the accepted canon. Ernani dates from 1843-44, making it contemporaneous with I due foscari and placing it after I lombardi. Good also to see Elijah Moshinsky’s sure directorial hand at work, too, with stage space imaginatively utilised and an atmospheric use of lighting.

Part I centres around Ernani, the bandit leader (here Rhys Meirion) and his love for Elvira (Cara O’Sullivan; Elvira is promised to the aged Don Ruy Gomez de Silva). Dark colours on stage, black draped cloth and dark mahogany panels all contribute to an oppressive atmosphere. Care also went into the orchestral contribution, with Mark Shanahan extracting sonorous brass playing and lovingly-shaded phrasing.

Rhys Meirion has previously sounded rather as if he’s just wandered in from the Valleys, seemingly rather alienated from the music he sings. His Ernani is different (although he took his time to warm into the part), but his voice rang brightly in a way denied it at the Barbican Theatre recently, as Tebaldo in Bellini’s I Capuleti e I Montecchi). Act II (wherein Ernani disguises himself as a pilgrim) revealed him to be tremulous, yet his duet with Elvira showed that it is in the tender passages that he is at his best.

His intended, Elvira, is rather popular in the plot, for not only is there her true love, but she is betrothed to her grizzled old uncle and guardian, Don Ruy Gomez de Silva, as well as receiving attentions form Don Carlo, the King of Spain. Cara O'Sullivan took the part – later in the run, Claire Rutter (who disappointed as Tosca in March) will take over. O’Sullivan pitches extremely well and has a very supple instrument in her voice. Just a touch more depth of tone would complete the picture, yet her lower register is sound, as her duet with the King in Part 1 revealed, and she is capable of much tenderness (the duet with Ernani in Part II) as well as steely resolution (Part IV). It would be interesting to compare and contrast Rutter later in the run.

The two other major roles are Don Ruy Gomez de Silva (henceforth just Silva) and Don Carlo. Bass Alastair Miles was magnificent as Silva, in many ways the real star of the show, and he certainly lived up to the drama of his entrance (set against terrific back-lighting). It was the eloquence of his subsequent singing that impressed, plus his real stage presence and real acting skills. His oath of revenge in Part II was a highlight (marvellous, lovely scoring by Verdi at this point).

A pity that Silva and Don Carlo are pitted against each other vocally in Part I, for baritone Ashley Holland’s Carlo was rather put in the shade. Holland’s credits include an Amfortas (Parsifal) in Graz, something that on present evidence seems difficult to imagine. Yet his voice, if not of the greatest strength and depth, is capable of great tonal variety and he possesses a smooth legato. His real chance to shine comes in Part III (‘Mercy’), where he shows a possible incredible willingness to pardon his enemies, a challenge Holland rose to.

Of the smaller roles, Scott Davies’ Don Riccardo (the King’s equerry) is a rather weak-voiced assumption. Yet this production is greater than the sum of its parts because of the sheer strength of Verdi’s score. There are remarkably few moments of rum-tee-tum accompaniment, and it is a credit to Mark Shanahan that the ENO orchestra played with unflagging enthusiasm throughout.

Colin Clarke

Further Listening:

CD: Domingo; Freni; La Scala/Muti EMI CDS7 47083-8

DVD: Pavarotti, Milnes, Raimondi, Met/Levine Pioneer Classics I504006

Picture Credits:

Rhys Meirion(Ernani)

Ethna Robinson(Giovanna)

Photographer: Bill Rafferty


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