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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Ernani - Lyric dramain four acts (1844)
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)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Metropolitan Opera/Thomas Schippers
rec. live, 10 April 1965, Met radio broadcast. Mono.
SONY CLASSICS 88691 90996 2 [37.53 + 65.51]

Experience Classicsonline

Ernani, Verdi’s fifth opera is based on Victor Hugo’s 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 approached by the Gran Teatro La Fenice to compose an opera to open their season, and aware of his increasing status, Verdi drove a hard bargain. He demanded that La Fenice stage I Lombardi as well as presenting the new opera to a libretto of Verdi’s own choice. It would be his first opera not premiered at La Scala. To write the verses he chose Piave, a native of Venice, who was to be his collaborator in nearly half his operas.
Ernani is in traditional form with arias, cabalettas and group scenes. Virile contributions from the chorus are an additional attraction for composer and audience. Verdi brings out the character of the conflicting roles, and their various relationships. Each has clear identification in the easy-on-the-ear melodic writing and vibrant choral music.
There were no studio recordings of Ernani until RCA took the core of the performers from this Met performance, including the conductor, to Rome in 1967 (GD 86503). For that Rome recording RCA substituted Ezio Flagello for Giorgio Tozzi as Silva and Mario Sereni as Don Carlo. However, it is neither the cast changes nor the poor recording characteristics of this issue that distinguishing the two - it is a matter of completeness. This performance, either as a consequence of theatre tradition or Thomas Schippers’ predilection for cutting, as in his recording of Macbeth for Decca, comes in at only 103 minutes for the opera itself. This compares with the 130 minutes for the complete work on the RCA studio recording under the same conductor. The savage cuts start with the overture and continue throughout with arias as well as cabalettas abbreviated and the chorus suffering even more.
The Met has always done justice to Ernani since its first production in 1903, as much as any major theatre. A rather grandiose 1983 production by Pier Luigi Samartini in costumes by Peter J Hall featuring Pavarotti, Sherrill Milnes, Ruggero Raimondi and Leona Mitchell made it onto DVD (Decca 00440 074 3228 DH). This production has been reprised several times including twice this century. It also featured in the Met transmission to cinemas on 25 February 2012, with a good cast. This will probably appear on DVD in 2013. As to the cast on this mono recording it has two of the best Verdi singers of their generation as the lovers. They are Carlo Bergonzi and the young Leontyne Price in role debuts. Regrettably, the recording mangles their opening contribution such that I hardly recognised them. Each voice exhibits a quick vibrato that I never found on stage or other recordings (CD 1, Trs.3 and 5). Later on, I easily recognised the distinctive patina and elegant phrasing of Bergonzi’s tenor (CD 2 Trs.10, 13 and 17-20) and the mellifluous purity of Price (CD 2 Trs.2-5). Both lower voice men are dependable rather than distinguished. Certainly they do not erase memories of Christoff and Bastianini under Mitropolous - circulated on unofficial LPs and now available from Bel Canto. A more modern live performance is that conducted by Muti from La Scala (see review) with Domingo, Ghiaurov and Bruson; Freni is a somewhat over-parted Elvira. The live recording from 1965 with Corelli and Price is similarly savaged by Schippers (MYTO Devotion MDCD 00010) although it has some extras.
The orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera respond to Thomas Schippers’ drive and the chorus bring welcome vibrancy.
Robert J Farr

see also review by Ralph Moore