“Typical Verdi!” one may think on hearing the rum-ti-tum rhythms of the banda as Act I of Ernani unfolds. But at the time of its composition, Ernani wasn’t typical Verdi at all, being very different to the four operas which had gone before. What it does do is to lay down the blueprint for the Spanish operas to come – Il trovatoreLa forza del destino and, ultimately, Don Carlos – the fiery passions and the relentless flow of melodic invention are remarkable if, as yet, his characters are ill-defined and two-dimensional. A red-blooded concert performance by Chelsea Opera Group, in a sweltering QEH, was low in subtlety but high in excitement.

Giuseppe Verdi
Giuseppe Verdi

Based on Victor Hugo’s Hernani, Verdi’s fifth opera was his first collaboration with Francesco Maria Piave and was composed for Venice’s La Fenice. The plot concerns three men – Ernani (a nobleman-turned-bandit), the elderly Don Ruy Gomez de Silva and Don Carlo (King of Spain) – all in love with the same woman, Elvira. The opera frequently hit trouble with the censors (or Hugo himself) and was adapted under the guises of Il proscritto, Elvira d’Aragona and Il corsaro di Venezia among others in its early years.

The one character who isn't two-dimensional is Don Carlo, the king seeking Elvira’s hand. Once elected Emperor, he magnanimously pardons those conspirators who’ve plotted against him and hands Elvira over to Ernani, nobly bowing out from his amorous aspirations. Verdi gives Carlo some wonderful music and any baritone worth his salt can, and should, steal the show. Gerard Quinn didn’t quite do that. His baritone was foggy in its depths and lacked some ease at the top. However, Quinn’s fine legato was impressive in “Vieni meco sol di rose”, as the king takes Elvira hostage, promising to entwine her life with roses. Act III, set in the tomb of Charlemagne in Aachen Cathedral, contains the opera’s finest music, Quinn again negotiating the long lines of “Oh, de’ verd’anni miei’ well before leading the closing ensemble, “O sommo Carlo”. Any Verdi baritones we have left should be begging leading houses to perform this role.

Australian soprano Helena Dix sang a terrific Elvira, our damsel in distress. It’s a role she covered at the Metropolitan Opera earlier this year and hers is a soprano capable of filling the Met’s auditorium. Vocal weight was matched by coloratura agility and delicate pianissimos, while her Act I cabaletta showed off terrific ornamentation. Fanning herself furiously in the QEH furnace, Dix rose to the challenges of Verdi’s vocal writing with aplomb, leading ensembles gloriously.

An Italianate sob and occasional scooping between notes made Gwyn Hughes Jones a little too Puccinian for the title role of Ernani. Verdi requires a cleaner line, but there’s no denying that the Welsh tenor provided plenty of excitement and ringing top notes. After his opening aria “Come rugiada al cespite” – lacking a little grace here – Ernani plays second fiddle to the baritone and bass for much of the rest of the opera. This evening, however, we had something of a rarity. Verdi, at the behest of Rossini no less, wrote an ‘insert aria’ for tenor Nicola Ivanov, singing the title role in Parma in 1844. A fine aria “Odi il voto” is followed by a terrific cabaletta, “Sprezzo la vita”, clearly a precursor of Manrico’s “Di quella pira” in Il trovatore. Pavarotti recorded it and it has been sung as part of the Met’s production, but this is believed to be the first time it has been performed on stage in London. Hughes Jones rose to the occasion splendidly with some thrilling singing.

The warm, sculpted bass of Jihoon Kim was well suited to the noble Silva, whose sense of honour sees him refusing to give up Ernani to the king, even though he’s a rival for Elvira’s hand. Erica Eloff, Matthew Sprange and Christopher Turner filled the smaller roles well. Robin Newton led a performance with plenty of fire. Some acidic woodwind tuning apart, the orchestra offered a spirited reading. The Chelsea Opera Chorus, sounding strident on the tenor line, contributed well to Verdi’s terrific ensembles.

It’s inconceivable that The Royal Opera can have offered us two productions of Verdi’s I due Foscari in the past two decades, yet has never staged Ernani, its immediate predecessor. Elijah Moshinsky’s venerable production for Welsh National Opera creaked its way to the Coliseum in 2004, since when… niente. Perhaps opera directors fear they can’t do much dramatically with such cardboard characters, but when you hear Ernani as well sung as this, it makes you long to see the whole thing staged. Three cheers then for Chelsea Opera Group for continuing to champion early Verdi!