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Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The Verdi Project: Ernani

The mature Verdi style emerges in the composer's fifth opera. 
by Paul J. Pelkonen
A post-horn: the instrument blown by Silva to remind Ernani that it is time to die.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.
Following the wild success of Nabucco and its follow-up I Lombardi, Verdi was on his way as an established composer of Italian opera. And yet, those operas, while having their positive points, do not yet embody the elements that one thinks of when the name "Verdi" comes to mind. Ernani changed all that. Its premiere at La Fenice, in Venice in 1844 was Verdi's first triumph away from the stage of La Scala and cemented his reputation as Italy's newest opera sensation

Ernani has a number of other Verdian firsts. It was the composer's first drama set in Spain, a country somewhat isolated from the rest of Europe and thus a playground in which playwrights of the 19th century could set wild Romantic dramas. Ernani was based on Hernani, a controversial play by Victor Hugo that was seen as a manifesto of the Romantic movement. It was adapted by Francesco Maria Piave, and the success of this opera marked the beginning of the long-standing (and occasionally long-suffering) relationship between composer and librettist.

By today's standard, the plot of Ernani seems a little silly. Three men are in love with Elvira, who is engaged to marry one of them: the Count da Silva (bass.) She actually loves Ernani, a nobleman (tenor) who has turned bandit and is the most feared man in Spain. The third suitor is Don Carlo, the guy who stripped Ernani of his lands and title. Carlo  (He is the grandfather of the title character in the later Verdi opera Don Carlo) is a Spanish nobleman who (in the third act) is crowned Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. At that point, to the surprise of the entire cast, he turns out not to be as evil as they thought he was.

Ernani saves Elvira from Silva. Silva saves Ernani from Carlo, and claims that the bandit owes him his life. Ernani saves Carlo from assassination and enables him to become Emperor. Carlo decides to let Ernani marry Elvira. At their wedding, Silva shows up and reminds Ernani that the nobleman-turned-bandit-turned-nobleman owes him his life, and at the sound of Silva's horn, Ernani must die. Ernani, who is above all things a man of his word, finally stabs himself rather than marry Elvira.

The chain of incident and coincidence seems absurd when viewed through the jaded, shaded lens of the 21st century. However, the character of Ernani represented a new kind of freedom in 19th century Europe, a rebel who fought against an unjust world and valued honor above everything. (Silva and Carlo represent Victor Hugo's view of establishment values.) Also, this was the first Verdi opera where, with the help of the industrious Piave, he set a great dramatic work to music, even improving it by condensing the play down to a taut four acts.

If the characters are sort of cardboard cutouts, it is Verdi's magnificent, soulful music brings each of them to vivid life. Here are the pounding rhythms, rousing choruses and the tunes: Elvira's "Ernani, inviolami," Carlo's "Oh, de' verd'anni miei" and "Come rugiada al cespite" for Ernani himself. Here also are great roles for bass and baritone but Ernani represents something new for Verdi: the tenor as leading man and protagonist of the drama.

Yes, this is Verdi's fifth opera and there are tenor parts in all of his first four. However, the protagonists of Oberto, Nabucco and I Lombardi are all baritones. (Of Un Giorno di Regno, Verdi's ill-fated second opera and a comedy, the less said, the better.)  This was the first time where Verdi chose that voice to carry the drama forward, writing in a style that made greater demands on the singer and actually requiring the person playing Ernani to, y'know, act.

Recordings recommendation:
Ernani was the first opera to be recorded, in 1903 by the Italian Gramophone Company. It appeared on 40 single sided discs. Most recordings of the opera appear on 2 CD sets or vinyl. Here are two worth investigating:

RCA Italian Opera Orchestra and Chorus cond. Thomas Schippers (RCA/Sony 1982)
Ernani: Carlo Bergonzi
Elvira: Leontyne Price
Silvio: Mario Serena
Carlo: Ezio Flagello
The chief attraction here is Carlo Bergonzi, in fine red-blooded form as the bandit with a heart. He is expertly matched with Leontyne Price, caught here in her early prime. Thomas Schippers, who regularly ran the controls in the Met pit in the pre-Levine era, conducts. There is also a Sony live recording from the Met with almost the same cast and conductor that is worth investigating.

Chorus and Orchestra of La Scala cond. Riccardo Muti (EMI/WB 1982)
Ernani: Plácido Domingo
Elvira: Mirella Freni
Carlo: Renato Bruson
Silvio: Nicolai Ghiaurov
Domingo is at his absolute peak here. Mirella Freni is in good form. Her late husband (Ghiaurov) is a bit faded and worn here, but the essential weirdness of having husband and wife play these characters (as they did many times) is worth the price alone. Renato Bruson is a sweaty and energetic Carlo. This was one of Riccardo Muti's early live recordings, and the audience listens with bated breath. 

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.