Verdi’s Ernani is a ludicrous opera, but this performance is excellent fun

Roman Arndt as Ernani in Buxton Festival's production of Verdi's fifth opera
Roman Arndt as Ernani in Buxton Festival's production of Verdi's fifth opera - Genevieve Girling

One woman, three rival men: it can’t end well. Ernani, Verdi’s fifth opera, was a considerable success in its time; having premiered at Venice’s Teatro La Fenice in 1844, it became the first of his operas to be performed in Britain. But in spite of the story’s fine pedigree in a play by Victor Hugo, condensed by the librettist Piave, its plot, which is based around the three rivals for the love of Elvira (her guardian, her uncle and the rebel Ernani) and their violent political battles, seems contorted today. And the opera’s denouement relies unconvincingly on the distant sounding of a horn – which struggles to be heard amid Verdi’s noisy orchestration – reminding Ernani of the vow he has taken: to kill himself or be killed.

Still, there’s the music. It may be unsubtle, underpinned by early Verdi’s mechanical rhythms and melodies, which are less free-flowing than later, but it has tremendous drive and energy. When delivered with the commitment of the four lead singers in this new Buxton Festival staging, it packs a punch, and explores well the motivations of the rival characters. As the hapless heroine Elvira, who has to spend much of the opera in a state of near-hysterical angst, Nadine Benjamin is an outstanding advocate for a role she should be singing on the world’s opera stages, passionate yet accurate, tortured by the perfidy around her yet exuberant in her constant commitment to Ernani.

Equally forceful and well-sculpted in tone is Roman Arndt as Ernani, nobleman-turned-bandit, a small Zelensky lookalike in his modern T-shirt. André Heyboer is an imposing Don Carlo, later Charles V, a Mussolini-like schemer who seeks the mantle of Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor, but when elected turns into a model of clemency and is persuaded by Elvira to release Ernani. The most interesting of the three rivals is Elvira’s uncle, Don Ruy Gómez de Silva, alternately protecting her and threatening his opponents: the veteran bass Alastair Miles turns in a terrific, hard-hitting account of some wide-ranging, demanding lines. Jane Burnell, Emyr Lloyd Jones and Theo Perry complete a taut and concentrated cast.

The gorgeous Buxton Opera House, designed by Frank Matcham, is an ideal home for this festival; its stage is not too large and its acoustics are fine. Sami Fendall designed an admirably sustainable set, reducing Silva and Ernani’s palaces to recycled panels; Jamie Manton’s uncluttered direction created some effective blockings for his grey-attired chorus, with a bit of self-parodying movement by Corina Würsch that mirrored Verdi’s banal banda-like dances. In a new departure for Buxton, the orchestra of Opera North was in the pit, and made a strong impression under Adrian Kelly’s unobtrusive conducting, bringing deep colours to the wind-led prelude to Act Three.

In the end, with clemency rampant and only Silva continuing to harp on about his ancient threat to Ernani, you are left wondering why on earth anyone in this saga really has to die. But this is opera: so an anguished final trio ensures that Ernani perishes, and Elvira is deprived of her one true love.


Until July 17. Tickets: 01298 72190; buxtonfestival.co.uk

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