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Verdi and Piave, after Victor Hugo

Buxton International Festival

Buxton Opera House

July 6, 10, 12, 14 and 17, 2024: 2 hrs 30 mins

The cast of Ernani, with André Heyboer (centre) as Don Carlo. cr Genevieve Girling
The cast of Ernani, with André Heyboer (centre) as Don Carlo. All pics: Genevieve Girling
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You could say Ernani is about a love quadrilateral, rather than triangle: three men in love with the same woman.

That’s unusual in opera plots and this, one of Verdi’s early successes and the first to be brought to England, is also distinctive in other ways. Its writing is highly concise: Piave, the librettist, was told by Verdi to keep things short and he did; the music likewise is constantly on the move. It has only one leading female role, while the three male ones are each a different voice type – tenor, baritone and bass – which gives the music a quality of its own. And, again unusually, the hero commits suicide at the end.

Briefly, Ernani (a nobleman in disguise who has joined the rebels against Don Carlo, the king of Spain) loves Elvira, who is to be forced to marry her uncle, Don Ruy. The two suspend their rivalry to enable their common revolt against the king, but swear an oath that eventually Don Ruy can insist on Ernani’s suicide. Don Carlo, who also loves Elvira, becomes Holy Roman Emperor (by election) and pardons the conspirators, but as Ernani is about to marry Elvira, Don Ruy takes his revenge.

So it’s about vendetta – one of Verdi’s favourite dramatic ideas – more than romantic love. The music surges with energy, and it is true that, as the warning note tells us, “This production involves death, blood, themes of physical and mental abuse, torture and suggestion of gun violence.”

The opera needs three powerful male voices, as well as a soprano who can plead passionately for her beloved, a chorus who can keep up the dramatic momentum in their acting and singing, and bravura playing from the orchestra pit. Jamie Manton’s production has all of those: Roman Arndt (Ernani), who has sung for Opera North as the Duke in Rigoletto, is both warm and strong; Andre Heyboer (Don Carlo) is equally forceful; and Alastair Miles (Don Ruy) is most impressive of all, with a richness in his bass that wonderfully underpins the ensembles.

Nadine Benjamin, as Elvira, embodies the passion of the pure lover, and the three minor roles (Jane Burnell as Giovanna, Emyr Lloyd Jones as Don Riccardo, and Theo Perry as Jago) are taken by highly gifted younger singers. The festival chorus (in good numbers, as is now the pattern at Buxton) is very strong, and then there’s the Orchestra of Opera North, with its rich string section and cimbasso in the brass – in short, every ingredient for a thundering good show.

Adrian Kelly, festival artistic director and conductor, burnishes his credentials as a thrilling Verdian, and Jamie Manton (who returns after Eugene Onegin for BIF in 2019) directs with a sure and purposeful hand. There’s plenty for the chorus to do – even a bit of choreography (movement by Corina Wursch) – and though Sami Fendall’s design is minimalist, it is effective (swords are visible when the text requires them, even if the rest of the costuming is present-day), in a multi-purpose set shaped as an opening triangle and thus almost like a giant megaphone, lit with vivid contrasts by DM Wood.

It’s the only main stage opera in the festival that’s entirely BIF’s rather than a co-production, and they haven’t stinted on resources for it in the context of the ever-present financial limitations of this annual shindig in the High Peak hills. It’s all well worth it.

More info and tickets here


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