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Decca Phase 4
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Ernani - lyric drama in
four acts (1844)
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
3818842 [47.34 + 80.57]
Ernani is Verdiís fifth opera and is based on Victor Hugoís
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.
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).
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.
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.
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
Gerard Hoffnung CDs
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