Music: Honour bound: Anthony Payne on Verdi's Ernani, in concert performance at the Barbican

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The 150th anniversary of Verdi's Ernani was celebrated by Opera in Concert at the Barbican Centre on Thursday with a rousing performance under the direction of Oliver von Dohanyi.

By the time he came to write Ernani, his fifth opera, Verdi was already considered in his native country to be a rising star whose rude vitality and dramatic presence did much to compensate for his sometimes rough-hewn technique. With Ernani, an important step forward in dramatic concentration and technical accomplishment, he scored a further success, producing a work which was to launch his international career. It was one of the first Verdi operas to be heard in this country and remained in general repertory for half a century.

The work was supplanted by later and greater Verdi, though, and became one of those many early, neglected products of the 19th-century Italian opera composers. Rarely staged, the work can still deliver its message in the concert hall, where it is easier to set aside the absurdities of its plot and dwell on the emotional intensity of the young Verdi's dramatic world.

The perverse sense of honour which lies at the heart of the opera and motivates each of the three main male characters may have little to commend it to today's audiences, based as it is on egotism rather than moral rectitude. It is difficult not to be exasperated when Ernani is forgiven by one rival with typically Verdian generosity only to be compelled by the other to make an end of himself according to an old but but now irrelevant promise.

But when projected by Verdi's musical and dramatic dynamism all of this can still impress, and on this occasion we were swept along by Verdi's inspiration and the enthusiasm of all the performers.

Ernani makes considerable demands upon its singers' virtuosity and staying power, but here the singing was exciting if not uniformly accomplished. Unfortunately, the much-heralded Fabio Armiliato was unable to make his London debut as Ernani, but the last-minute replacement Anthony Mee projected the role enthusiastically, even if his tone was a little constricted.

Boldly characterised, too, was the Don Carlo of Anthony Michaels-Moore, though the most vocally impressive of all the men was Alastair Miles whose firmly centred tone and cultured delivery brought great presence to the part of Silva. Finally, the demanding role of Elvira was tackled with vigour and vitality by Maria Guleghina and, after a first act in which a certain forcing led to intonation problems and roughness of line, she settled to singing of admirable firmness and committed emotion.

Dohnanyi urged Verdi's dramatic structures inexorably forward and was aided by exciting playing from the English Chamber Orchestra. The Pro Musica Chorus of London sang vividly.