Ernani, Coliseum London

Singing it loudly and proudly
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The Independent Culture

You know exactly where you are with early Verdi - directly in the firing line. The impulses are primary, the band brassy, the voices lusty. This was/is the people's opera at its most direct. The passion is in the exuberance. Compromise that and you are nowhere. You need a conductor and you need voices who aren't afraid to lay it on the line.

You know exactly where you are with early Verdi - directly in the firing line. The impulses are primary, the band brassy, the voices lusty. This was/is the people's opera at its most direct. The passion is in the exuberance. Compromise that and you are nowhere. You need a conductor and you need voices who aren't afraid to lay it on the line.

At the Coliseum, Verdi's Spanish swashbuckler Ernani has a conductor - Mark Shanahan - who isn't backward in coming forward and a set of principals who, if not great stylists, are brave and unretiring. They also have a chorus - plenty of them - who, when necessary, sound like they could be pretty useful on the football terraces. Not bad for starters.

Elijah Moshinsky's 1979 production, first seen at ENO in 2000, specialises in grand tableaux designed to stand and deliver for optimum impact. There are a lot of bodies on stage for the big moments. Maria Bjornson's designs are very much from a time when the trend was for black and shiny. The drama, such as it is, feels contained. The walls here literally close in on our protagonists. Mobile panels are steered into place by unseen shadowy figures; they shift, they slide, they catch the light in often startling ways, suggesting long corridors, secret chambers, intrigue. Hardly hi-tech but effective.

Mike Gunning's lighting wisely exploits the possibilities of furtive torchlight allowing Bjornson's richly coloured frocks to appear positively luminous. There's a striking set-piece for the heroine Elvira's wedding, an upper gallery lined with candles and imaginary fireworks exploding in the dome of the auditorium directly above our heads.

Elvira has three obsessive suitors. That's excessive even for opera. But only one rings her bell: the outlaw Ernani. We first meet him in act one, scene one; by scene two the delicacy of their situation is all too apparent. It is the day of Elvira's wedding to her uncle and guardian, the ageing Don Ruy Gomez de Silva, and from the way she's flinging her jewels about it's clear that she's far from thrilled at the prospect. Her imperious entrance aria, dispatched with wilful aplomb by Cara O'Sullivan, confirms that diamonds are not this girl's best friend. With her big hair and mountainous frock O'Sullivan has the look of the young Joan Sutherland. She also has a few of her vocal characteristics: a big sound, admirable agility, and an effortless top C suggesting D's and E-flats in waiting.

Rhys Meirion (Ernani) has plenty of vocal charisma, too. An engagingly smooth, even production but with plenty of virility in the mix. There's an authentically Italianate "sob" in the delivery, too, and his silky mezza voce can be very beautiful. He needs to work more on his physical presentation but he's clearly found his niche in this repertoire. Alastair Miles, done up to look like a darkly malevolent Don Quixote, is a splendid Silva, ferocious in attack, chillingly unforgiving, and more incisive with the text than anyone. He makes an effective foil to the dignity of Ashley Holland as Don Carlo, the new King of Spain, who is also in love with Elvira. Holland's isn't the most charismatic of voices but he achieved a grateful enough legato in his big act three aria to signal his magnanimity later.

As Portia said, "the quality of mercy is not strained". But it's a lot less fun than the blood and thunder. That's what we came for. That's what we got.

To 2 July (020-7632 8300)

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