George Bernard Shaw admired the “fierce noonday sun” of the score to Ernani. “The one with the bandits” even gets a glancing mention in his play, Arms and the Man. I'm not convinced that Sven-Eric Bechtolf shares that sense of admiration. His new production for La Scala – ending a 36-year hiatus since Luca Ronconi's celebrated staging opened the 1982-83 season – doesn't exactly sneer at Verdi's fifth opera, but Bechtolf does seem faintly embarrassed by it all. The Milanese audience rumbled him straight away.

Francesco Meli (Ernani and Ailyn Pérez (Elvira)
© Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

It's difficult to imagine Ernani uprooted from its Renaissance Spain setting. Its plot, based on Victor Hugo's play, relies on codes of honour that don't update well. Aristocrat-turned-bandit Ernani, elderly grandee Don Ruy Gomez de Silva and the king, Don Carlo, are all competing for the hand of Silva's ward, the beautiful Elvira. When Ernani is discovered in Elvira's bedchamber, Silva spares his life in return for helping him rescue her from the king, who has taken her hostage. Ernani swears an oath that if Silva ever sounds his horn within his hearing, he will take his own life. Carlo himself honourably gives up the chase to pursue a loftier goal, that of becoming Holy Roman Emperor, and decrees Elvira should marry Ernani, in reality the nobleman Don Juan of Aragon. But grouchy old Silva calls in his pledge during the wedding feast and Ernani is honour-bound to kill himself.

Ildar Abdrazakov (Silva) and chorus
© Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

Bechtolf can't quite bring himself to present the piece in period, so resorts to meta-theatre. During the prelude the curtain rises on a 19th-century stage, with ropes and pulleys flying in scenery, a troupe of singers arriving to put on the opera, staged as old-fashioned park-and-bark. Silva wields a sword long enough to make him look a doddery old fool. The chorus execute some dodgy choreography, and there are a couple of dancers who mince about, creeping through the drop curtain with placards to announce a brief pause before Act 4, which drew the ire of the Scala loggionisti. The gravitas of the inky woodwind prelude to Act 3, where Carlo visits Charlemagne's tomb, is utterly undermined by having a maid brushing the baritone's costume as he gets himself “in the zone”. As Ernani expires, scenery flats are raised to the flies, showing the entire company – singers and stagehands – moved by his honour-bound sacrifice.

Act 4, "The Mask"
© Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

If the production leaves a slightly bitter taste of insincerity, the music-making was honest and earnest. Wearing his impish grin, Ádám Fischer launched into the score with gusto – sometimes too fast for the chorus to keep step with him, but it made for a thrilling ride.

Decked out in doublet and hose and Mario del Monaco-style pencil moustache, Francesco Meli sang a hammy bandit. He didn't quite slap his thighs but it was a close run thing. There was something del Monaco-esque about his voice too, stentorian in tone and reluctant to explore much below the level of forte. It's an exciting can belto sound though, full of tenorial glamour and long-held high notes. Although she lacks a little weight for the lower reaches of Elvira's cavatina “Ernani, Ernani involami”, Ailyn Pérez has all the sparkling coloratura (she's a great Violetta) for the cabaletta. She rode ensembles with ease and looked a million dollars in peacock headdress for the Venetian-looking palazzo in Act 4 (Bechtolf referencing the opera's première at La Fenice, possibly).

Luca Salsi (Don Carlo)
© Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

Luca Salsi's burly baritone made for an opulent-sounding Don Carlo. His phrasing of the king's beautiful love song to Elvira, “Vieni meco, sol di rose” (the one Denis Forman described as “He likes it so much he sings it twice”) was disappointingly choppy, but he rose to the noble magnanimity of Act 3 well. Ildar Abdrazakov's gorgeous bass made the most of Silva's mournful “Infelice”, arousing sympathy for the old man who calls in Ernani's pledge.

Verdi's score bursts with melodic invention. It can be considered a blueprint for Trovatore and deserves a more regular place in the repertoire, but it needs more sincere advocacy than Bechtolf is prepared to grant.