Ernani, Verdi’s little-known early opera, based on Victor Hugo’s play Hernani, is a seldom performed work. The improbable story of three men – a king, a nobleman and a bandit (Ernani) – who all fall in love with the lovely Elvira in 16th-century Spain is the next production of the Israeli Opera, directed by Michael Znaniecki. American conductor George Pehlivanian returns to the opera house podium after his successful debut last winter, passing the baton to Israeli maestro Yishai Steckler in a of the performances. The cast is phenomenal, featuring many familiar names of international soloists, such as Pierro Giuliacci and Hugh Smith in the title role, Michele Crider, Paata Burchuladze, Ramaz Chikviladze, Vitorrio Vitelli, as well as Israelis Efrat Ashkenazi, Yifat Weisskopf, Felix Livshitz and Noah Briger.It’s an Israeli debut for prominent Italian baritone Carlo Guelfi, who will appear as Carlo, King of Spain. Guelfi performs regularly at La Scala, the Metropolitan, Covent Garden and the other major opera houses of the world. His repertoire includes leading roles in Tosca, Aida, Nabucco, Otello, La Traviata, La fanciulla del West, Pagliacci, Cavalleria rusticana and many others. Late in the evening at the Israeli Opera cafeteria, after a tiring day of rehearsals, charismatic and elegant Guelfi speaks about his musical preferences. “Over the years, I have performed Verdi’s operas, as well as some verismo pieces, operas by Puccini, Mascagni – in other words, what is called great Italian repertoire.”Guelfi’s debut was in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. Straight after that, he was catapulted to perform the title role in Rigoletto. “I love that role, and it brought me a lot of luck.Due to my physical size it was not easy to play it, especially in the first act, because a court jester is usually envisioned as somebody small. But vocally it went very well, and not only in Rigoletto; I did all Verdi’s major baritone parts. I love Donizetti, but the problem there is to find an appropriate partner for the role.”He has nothing but praise for this little-known piece by Verdi. “Ernani is one of his early operas, but it is replete with amazingly beautiful music. The best elements of Verdi’s music are already there.”On his first visit to Israel, Guelfi is already in love with Tel Aviv. “Israel is the cradle of the three major religions. You simply feel that here is the force that makes the world go round. But it’s Tel Aviv that I enjoy in many ways. For me, it’s the New York of this part of the world. The energy, you simply feel it. There are crowds of beautiful young people in the streets, I see a lot of young parents with lovely kids, pregnant women. For me, it says a lot because in many parts of the world, society has become egotistic; they live for the day and don’t think about tomorrow. People live for themselves and are already consuming their future – and they don’t want children. Here, it is different: People are very pleasant, and this is a great sign. Believe me, I’m not saying this to sound nice or to win favor. I now understand why Zubin Mehta, under whose baton I have performed numerous operas, says he feels at home here,” he says.“I even asked my wife, ‘Maybe you would like to have a small apartment in Tel Aviv so we could spend two winter months here?’ The weather is simply wonderful, much better than in Rome.”Signora Guelfi, who is sitting with us during the conversation, nods with a smile.Ernani will be performed at TAPAC on January 7-22 (January 8 is the official premiere). Prior to the performances on January 11, 12, 16 & 22, there are backstage tours at 7 p.m. Opera Talkback on January 11, 14, and 17. www.israel-opera.co.il. For reservations, call (03) 692-7777.