Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Ernani - opera in four acts (1843)
Ernani, the bandit - Carlo Bergonzi (tenor); Don Carlo, King of Spain - Cornell MacNeil (baritone); Don Ruy de Silva, a Spanish grandee - Giorgio Tozzi (bass); Elvira, Silva’s niece and loved by Ernani - Leontyne Price (soprano); Don Riccardo, the King’s equerry - Robert Nagy (tenor); Jago, equerry to Silva - Roald Reitan (bass)
The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus/Thomas Schippers
rec. live, 1 December 1962, Metropolitan Opera. Mono
SONY CLASSICAL 88691 90996 2 [37:53 + 65:51]
The more of these Met archives live broadcasts we hear, the more we become aware of a standard of cast and performance that might then have been taken for granted but which seems impossibly exalted today. The only pity is that they were not recorded in stereo. As it is, we must be content with clean, slightly boxy mono sound occasionally punctuated with some wow and fade such as we hear at the end of the great ensemble “Oh sommo Carlo” which concludes Act III. Supposedly re-mastered for this first Met-authorised release, the sound is apparently little different from or better than previous unauthorised releases but no-one will complain at the price. We are not exactly short of good recordings of Ernani. There is the excellent, stereo 1967 RCA studio recording with the same two principal singers and conductor. A classic vintage performance exists from RAI in 1950 with Caterina Mancini, Gino Penno and Giuseppe Taddei conducted by Previtali. There’s also the celebrated live blockbuster from Florence in 1957 starring Del Monaco, Cerquetti, Christoff and Bastianini – beat that for a cast!
Having said that, I think there are still very good reasons for buying this set, not least the opportunity to hear Leontyne Price in such youthful, vibrant voice that she sounds positively reckless in her attack on her music; she is as thrilling as Mancini and Cerquetti but with even more beauty of tone. True, one or two top notes squawk a little, but by and large this is the most vital and uninhibited singing you will ever hear from her. Bergonzi, too, while he will never have the heft and squillo of Del Monaco, is as elegant as ever and immensely touching in his lament “Solingo, errante e misero”, but also extraordinarily released, capping the cavatina to his opening aria with a prolonged B flat that raises the roof. To complete a trio of superb singers, Cornell MacNeill is in massively authoritative voice, firm and expressive if occasionally slightly vibrato-heavy; he twice caps his big moments with ringing A-flats. The singers’ grandstanding results in spontaneous audience applause over the music but that just adds to the drama of what was clearly a great occasion. The supporting cast, led by a black-voiced Giorgio Tozzi as the implacable Silva, is very good, especially Robert Nagy in the small tenor role of Riccardo.
Schippers conducts a brisk, urgent, flexible performance which has a small cut in the chorus for the “Festa di Ballo” opening Act IV but is otherwise complete. This is not a subtle opera: there are lots of “oompah-pah” 3/4 passages and the melodramatic plot, with its insistence upon honour over common sense or morality, is rebarbative to a modern audience; Hugo condemned the adaptation of his play “Hernani” as a “travesty”. On the other hand, the succession of great, rollicking tunes and strong characterisation whereby a persona is closely linked to its voice type, make this, Verdi’s fifth opera, first performed in 1844 and his first real success since “Nabucco”, a tempting bargain. The music is by no means all rum-ti-tum; there is a lovely orchestral introduction to Elvira’s first appearance on stage which is reminiscent of the one Bellini used to introduce Adalgisa in “Norma”. The set-pieces, such as the aforementioned ensemble and the great trio which concludes the work, are both stirring and sophisticated.
For the record the libretto was by Francesco Maria Piave. It was based on Victor Hugo’s play Hernani. The opera was first performed at the Teatro la Fenice, Venice, on 9 March 1843.
This issue of yet another of the Met Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts is self-recommending as long as you are tolerant of mono sound.
Ralph Moore

The most vital and uninhibited singing you will ever hear from Leontyne Price. Self-recommending as long as you are tolerant of mono sound.