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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]

And so here it is, at last. Mutiís Ernani has made its presence felt for nearly a quarter of a century as a full-price, three disc set. EMI have finally re-released it at lower mid-price on only two discs, halving the expenditure. In its current guise it, effectively, blows all the competition out of the water. This is definitely the version of Ernani to have.
Recorded as part of Mutiís long-running cycle of early to middle period Verdi operas with his La Scala forces in the 1980s, this particular issue has garnered a huge amount of praise over the past two decades. It has also attracted a substantial amount of negative comment regarding Mirella Freniís account of Elvira. I will say straight away that this is not Freniís finest recorded hour; the voice shows signs of wear and the part is obviously too big for her. She gets away with a magnificent Aida under Karajan (available in the same series, see review) because she recorded it under studio conditions. On the other hand Freni on a bad night, with a sore throat and a severe case of flu would sing well enough to eclipse pretty much any soprano on the contemporary international stage. She certainly wouldnít have dropped out of the Salzburg festival.
The problem with Freniís performance here, and with any soprano tackling this part on stage, is that the most taxing moments happen very early on. The fiendish demands of ĎErnani, Ernani involamií in the second scene of the first act are very difficult to overcome. Freni, to be fair, fluffs quite a lot of the passage work and the voice spreads uncomfortably above the stave. If you can get past that then there is much wonderful singing to be heard later on, and Freni is passionately and absolutely committed to the role.
When this production was broadcast live on British television, it generated a considerable amount of excitement, due primarily to the quality of the singing. At the time it was hailed as some of the finest Verdi singing heard in quite some time. Two decades later, and with a definite down turn in the number of great bel canto singers on stage, such quality makes an even greater impact. Domingo here gives what might well be his finest recorded performance. Not very many years after he had first essayed Verdiís Otello, his voice is absolutely magnificent. There is an extra baritonal element to his voice that complements, rather than detracting from, the heroically ringing high notes. He still retains the incredible exuberance of his youthful Verdi performances but manages to allay this with a greater appreciation of the finer details of Verdi style. His Act 1 cabaletta is a supreme example of just how exciting Verdi singing can be whilst remaining eminently stylish. In 1983 this was the finest Ernani recorded; I doubt very much if Domingo will be bettered.
Thankfully, we have Bruson and Ghiaurov as the supporting males, both at their appreciable best. Orchestras in Verdi productions are often overlooked. Whatever criticism he may deserve, Muti is a fantastic musical director. Few other conductors lavish as much care and attention on a score such as this. The result is that the La Scala forces, who have this music in their veins anyway, give an electrifying account of the score. Mutiís reputation as a tyrant is fully borne out by this performance; I doubt very much if you will often hear such disciplined playing (and singing) as this.
If any of my above comments lead you to think that this was merely an accurate and expertly sung performance, let me say that this is one of the most purely enjoyable Verdi performances that I have ever heard. Much will depend upon your opinion of early Verdi, but if you like your drama full-blooded and your music as tub-thumpingly blatant as possible, then youíll find no finer example in the current catalogue. As if the singing, conducting and playing were not enough, EMIís sound is exceptionally vivid, avoiding most of the pit-falls of recording at La Scala.
One minor quibble; the set is nicely presented, has adequate notes but no libretto. There is a link to the EMI website where you can acquire one. But I am curious as to who actually sits in front of a computer following a libretto whilst listening to a CD? All of the releases in this current batch of EMI opera issues have specially painted artwork; couldnít they have just recycled the old artwork and spent the extra money on a printed libretto?
Squeezed onto two discs (with no mid-act disc breaks) it represents a real bargain and shoots it straight to the top of recommendations for this opera.

Owen E Walton

see also review by Robert J Farr


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