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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Ernani - lyric drama in four acts (1844)
Ernani, the bandit - Placido Domingo (ten); Don Carlo, King of Spain - Renato Bruson (bar); Don Ruy de Silva, a Spanish grandee - Nicolai Ghiaurov (bass); Elvira, Silvaís niece and loved by Ernani - Mirella Freni (sop); Don Riccardo, the Kingís equerry - Gianfranco Manganotti (ten); Jago, equerry to Silva - Alfredo Giacomotti (bass)
Orchestra and Chorus of La Scala, Milan/Riccardo Muti
rec. live, production by Luca Ranconi, December 1982
EMI CLASSICS 3818842 [47.34 + 80.57]

Ernani is Verdiís fifth opera and is based on Victor Hugoís play Hernani. It was first performed at the Teatro la Fenice, Venice, on 9 March 1844. It follows directly after Nabucco and I Lombardi premiered at La Scala in March 1842 and February 1843 respectively. These works had been resounding successes and placed the thirty-year-old Verdi alongside his older compatriot, Donizetti, at the forefront of Italian opera composers. When the society that owned the Gran Teatro la Fenice in Venice assembled to decide on the names of opera composers for the coming season Verdi was high on their list. La Fenice was La Scalaís biggest rival in Northern Italy. It was the theatre in which Rossini had won international fame with Tancredi in 1813 after which he was escorted to his lodgings by a flotilla of gondolas, a water-borne band playing a selection from his score. A success in Venice had its own particular flavour and the prospect was an attraction for Verdi.
In my review of the Dynamic DVD of this opera, I recounted the circumstances of Verdiís commission at La Fenice, and the hard bargain his burgeoning reputation allowed him to drive with the theatre management. I also recount my own experiences of UK productions and comment on the paucity of recordings either studio or live. That poor showing is all the more surprising in view of Verdiís easily listened-to melodic invention and vibrant choral writing. The 1957 live recording from the Maggio Musicale in Florence with Cerquetti, Del Monaco, Christoff and Bastianini under Mitropolous (Bel Canto) should really have provided the major recording companies with the necessary stimulus. But each one was concerned with building up core repertoire, first in mono and a few years later, in stereo. Consequently it was not until 1967, and following a production at the Met, that RCA ventured a first studio recording. Somewhat compromised by a rough recording but with Bergonzi an elegant Ernani and Leontyne Price in her considerable vocal pomp as Elvira, it remains the best-sung stereo version (RCA). Decca went into the recording studio in 1987 with their contracted duo of Joan Sutherland and Pavarotti in the lead roles with support from Nucci and Burchuladze under Bonynge. The recording sat in Deccaís vaults for eleven years before seeing the light of day. To my ears the reason is not difficult to determine with the divaís heavy vocal beat, lack of steadiness and poor diction being only one drawback. A colleagueís review is on this site.

In between those two studio recordings, EMI entered the market with this 1982 recording of a live performance during La Scalaís staging of Luca Ranconiís opulent production. As far as I am aware no further competition on legitimate studio or live recordings appeared until the Dynamic CD of the Teatro Reggio performances at the annual Verdi Festival in May 2005 (see review). As I note above, that performance has since appeared on DVD and in doing so it parallels this production from La Scala, a DVD of which is also available (Warner Music 4509-99213-2).
Since its first appearance in 1983 this recording has previously only appeared as three full priced discs with the usual full libretto and multilingual translation. This new lower priced version two CD version, with the enclosed discs each in cardboard slipcase within a colourful outer folding box, has neither enclosed libretto nor any sign of the La Scala logo on the front. A full libretto can be accessed on the web. There a track listing, an introductory essay and a track-related synopsis, all in English, French and German. Importantly, its issue on two CDs ensures its place in the market, matching both the RCA and Decca version as well as the recent Dynamic live recording in that respect. Even better is the layout. Act 1 is alone on the first CD with the three other acts on the second well-filled disc whose timing, very near the CD maximum, also allows for restricted applause at the end of each act and is unlike the Dynamic recording, which has applause after individual arias.
Ernani is written in traditional form with arias, cabalettas and group scenes with Verdian Risorgimento-type choruses an added virtue for the audience. Verdiís writing brings out the character of the conflicting roles, and their various relationships, so that each has clear identification in the music. An ideal performance of Ernani demands four true Verdi voices as well as tight control of the orchestra and choral contributions. This recording scores very highly in respect of the contributions of Domingo as Ernani and Bruson as Carlo, later Charlemagne. Domingo is in pristine voice in Ernaniís recitative and aria Merce, diletto amici and its cabaletta (CD 1 trs 3-4). Importantly Domingo maintains his vocal form and excellent characterisation through to the final scene when Ernani is confronted with Silvaís implacable determination that he forfeit his life (CD 2 tr 15). Brusonís performance as Carlo is outstanding in quality of tonal beauty, expression and characterisation and betters all other singers in the role in the stereo era. Brusonís vocal acting in his singing as Carlo awaits the conspirators in Charlemagneís tomb, and is later acclaimed emperor and in a volte-face forgives his enemies, is outstanding (CD 2 trs 9-13). Itís a pity that the demand for a cannon to be sounded if Carlo is elevated to Emperor is weakly represented by feeble chimes, as aided by Mutiís conducting and Brusonís singing this scene comes over, as it should, as one of early Verdiís most consummate creations. Also contributing to this scene, as well as the frisson of the performance of the whole, is the contribution of the La Scala chorus and orchestra under Muti and all of whom who are on top form without any lapses or exaggerations.
Despite my views on the contribution of Domingo, Bruson, Muti and the chorus, I cannot give this performance an unequivocal recommendation. I have one serious and two lesser reservations. First, and most important, is the singing of the lyric soprano Mirella Freni as Elvira. Right from the outset of her scene 2 arrival and recitative surta la notte, the following aria Ernani involami and its cabaletta (CD 1 trs. 5-7) it is all too obvious that she lacks the necessary spinto colour or power. This drawback is aggravated by that fact this is a live performance in a large theatre, where the sound engineers cannot manipulate the balance to any great extent. She is often tentative in attack and fails to invest the character with life. What Freni lacks Leontyne Price has in abundance on the RCA recording. Freniís husband, Nicolai Ghiaurov, as the implacable Silva, is below the best that we all enjoyed in his 1970s Decca recordings. Sounding vocally tired at times he lacks the solid sonority of those earlier years. Nonetheless he does manage to convey Silvaís character by dint of experience. My final lesser reservation is the recording. If this performance had the recorded quality of Mutiís earlier EMI sessions in London, I would be very happy, although I would then have lost the La Scala chorus and orchestra. The La Scala theatre was, and may still be after its renovation, a difficult recording venue to master. The sound here is good 1960s quality and better than that on the RCA recording, but by 1982 most opera recordings were in a clearer more atmospheric ambience. This sounds rather flat and lacks the sonic impact inherent in the performance.
If RCA were to re-master their Rome recording of Ernani, and it appeared with the kind of sonic improvement found on their recent reissue of the 1960 Rome recording of La Traviata with Anna Moffo, I would still plump for that as the best CD choice with the DVD of this La Scala production leading the field in that medium. In the meantime, economically packaged and now on two CDs, with the libretto and translation available online, I would have this recording in my collection for the singing of Bruson and Domingo and the vibrancy of the La Scala chorus.
Robert J Farr


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