The girl can't help it

Ernani | Coliseum, London

Reduced to a plot summary, Verdi's Ernani seems just another ludicrous bel canto opera: beautiful Elvira is pursued by three men, two of whom appear at different times in disguise, all of whom strut and swagger with misguided male pride until the one she loves (of course) dies, victim of a suicide pledge.

Yet while much of Ernani is generic, there are already signs in this, only his fifth opera, that Verdi was beginning to refashion the form. Significantly, he disposes the male roles across the vocal spectrum: Ernani, the bandit hero, is a headstrong tenor; Silva, Elvira's guardian, is a brooding bass; while Don Carlo, king of Spain, is a baritone, the Verdian voicetype connoting complexity. There is evidence too of Verdi's burgeoning ability to shape the sequence of arias and ensembles into drama, rather than mere vocal display.

English National Opera's new production at least has the benefit of fine singers. As Ernani, Julian Gavin has impressive heft, filling the house yet showing few signs of strain. He is matched by Sandra Ford's Elvira, stretched at times by the torturous coloratura but otherwise controlling the line with idiomatic grace. As so often in Verdi, the lower voices carry what psychological development there is. Peter Rose gives the role of Silva an ominous weight, the timbre darkening as he pursues Ernani to his death, while Alan Opie, by now an ENO veteran, is in excellent form as Don Carlo.

Each of the soloists ensures that Antony Peattie's translation comes across, though the chorus communicates less. If there are moments when the English prosody doesn't quite match the music's Italianate cadences, that's not an argument against opera in English. Mostly the singing locates the idiom, and David Parry's conducting demands no special pleading: this is Verdi red in tooth and claw.

If only the same could be said of the production. Mike Ashman is credited with a production "after" Elijah Moshinsky's 1979 staging for Welsh National Opera, just as Maria Bjornson's set design is "after her original design". The costumes, meanwhile, have been "reinterpreted" by Irene Bohan. Laudable economy, no doubt, but too often the designs are simply a backdrop against which the singers line up facing the audience. Costumes span the period from the 16th to the 19th centuries, which is fine, but there is no dramatic imperative to make things cohere. The temperature rarely rises above moderate, the opera's nervy energy only hinted at by a surfeit of sword-wielding.

Sandra Ford, in particular, is left high and dry. What character she does manage to convey suggests that Elvira is a pouty little flirt; most of the time she has the impassivity of a doll, as if Olympia from The Tales of Hoffmann (a role that is already in her repertoire) had strayed into the wrong opera. Verdi's early operas may not make much room for psychological realism, but to reduce the characters to automata is to fail the music.

Further performances on Thurs, Sat (live on BBC Radio 3), 16, 19, 25 & 27 May, 2, 8 & 15 June (020-7632 8300)

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