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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Ernani - Lyric dramain four parts (1844)
Ernani, a bandit - Marco Berti (tenor); Don Carlo, King of Spain - Carlo Guelfi (baritone); Don Ruy de Silva, a Spanish grandee - Giacomo Prestia (bass); Elvira, Silva’s niece and loved by Ernani - Susan Neves (soprano); Don Riccardo, the King’s equerry - Samuele Simoncini (tenor); Jago, equerry to Silva - Alessandro Svab (bass)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro Reggio, Parma, Italy/Antonello Allemandi
Performed in the Critical Edition by Claudio Gallico.
rec. Teatro Reggio, Parma, May 2005, annual Verdi Festival
Director, Set and Costume designer: Pier’Alli
Video Director: Tiziano Mancini
Subtitles: Italian (original language), English, German, French, Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Japanese
Booklet essay in English, German Italian and French
Video format: 1080i. Aspect ratio: 16:9. Sound Format: DTS-HD MA 5.01
C MAJOR 720904 [130:00 + 10:00]

Experience Classicsonline



Ernani is the fifth opera in the Verdi canon and is based on Victor Hugo’s play Hernani. It is numbered five in the present C Major Tutto Verdi series from the Parma Festival. To celebrate Verdi’s bicentenary the series will tackle all twenty-six of Verdi’s operas, plus the Requiem, all to be released in the coming months on DVD and Blu-Ray.
 
In the Verdi oeuvre Ernani 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. Venice’s premier theatre, La Fenice, was La Scala’s biggest rival in Northern Italy. It was the theatre where Rossini had won international fame with Tancredi in 1813 and also concluded his Italian career in triumph with Semiramide in 1823. After that performance Rossini 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 when an invitation came from the Society that owned the Gran Teatro La Fenice. At first he dallied with an opera based on the history of Venice using one of the poems by Byron as the basis for the libretto. Both poems, Marino Faliero, used earlier by Donizetti, (see review)and I due Foscari, dealt with the darker side of Venice’s history. The city fathers would rather portray its Festival side and Verdi was warned off. However, he did use the second of those poems for his sixth opera of that title, given in Rome later the same year as the premiere of Ernani.
 
The composer, aware of his increasing value drove a hard bargain by which La Fenice would stage I Lombardi as well as presenting the new opera to a libretto of Verdi’s own choice. To write the verses he chose Piave, a native of Venice, and who was to be his collaborator in nearly half of his subsequent works. Although the subject of Ernani had already been featured in operas by others, and even considered by Bellini, Verdi’s music brought out the story as no other had done before. Ernani is written in traditional form with arias, cabalettas and group scenes with virile chorus contributions being an additional attraction. Verdi articulates the character of the conflicting roles, and their various relationships, so that each has clear identification in the music. This manner had, perhaps, been missing in his earlier successful operas, which had succeeded on the basis of the popular appeal of their thrusting melodies. Ernani has a density of musical invention and melody that is perhaps only matched by Macbeth before being equalled in Rigoletto, both with libretti by Piave, and the great mature period operas that followed. Nevertheless Ernani had only a moderate success at its premiere, the vocal limitations of some of the soloists being to blame. It had to wait until productions at Vienna in May 1844, and La Scala six months later, for full recognition of its qualities. For the La Scala performances Verdi made additions to the role of Silva that are present here. Ernani was the first of Verdi’s operas to be translated into English and was admired by George Bernard Shaw. Within a year it was staged by at least thirty different Italian theatres and as far afield as Vienna. It remained in the Italian repertoire in Verdi’s lifetime, falling from favour in the early part of the twentieth century; even today performances are scarce.

When reviewing this performance on CD (see review) I recounted that I had never had a bad night in the theatre with Ernani in the UK. Being impressed by the photographs of a resplendent staging in the accompanying booklet, I conjectured that a DVD might have distracted from some rather variable singing. That is in fact how it turned out when the performance first appeared on DVD issued by the Dynamic label (see review). In the title role Marco Berti’s tight top and somewhat dry tone is not improved by his rather wooden acting. However, that earlier dry tone (CHs. 4-6) does warm as the performance progresses and even exhibits signs of vocal sensitivity in the finale (CHs. 37-39). Both Carlo Guelfi as Carlo and Giacomo Prestia are physically imposing, the latter’s acted portrayal of the old and implacable Silva being particularly convincing (CHs.18-27). Carlo Guelfi’s strong tones as Carlo enable the dramatic situations to come over effectively with well-covered and coloured tone to the fore. He is particularly strong in Part 3, at Charlemagne’s Tomb (CHs.28-35) when Carlo first threatens dire consequences for the plotters (CH.29). After his elevation to the crown of Charlemagne he is more clement (CHs.33-35). The other side of the coin comes with Susan Neves as Elvira. Along with Carlo Guelfi she is vocally a tower of strength. Visually she is less pleasing, tending to float around the stage in her ornate full-skirted 16th century costumes. Her introductory Sorte la notte, Ernani involami (CHs. 7-9) is a little tentative, but once into her stride her full voice emerges with good variety of tonal colour and modulation.
 
The costumes are in period and the sets, apart from a rather dull and indeterminate Part 1, simple but effective. The chorus are fully and their acted commitment is not in doubt. Their singing is both strong and vibrant.
 
Antonello Allemandi’s conducting is variable in tempi between fast, for the trios of Part 1 (CHs.10 and 12) and Part 2 (CHs.18-19) and a more languid approach. You can hear the latter in some of the solos where he seems over-eager to support his singers by allowing time for them to phrase, but putting them under extra pressure to hold the vocal line. This is particularly evident in the case of Giacomo Prestia’s Silva when his sonorous tones and elegant phrasing becomes a little wavery. Allemandi also ups the tempi for the vibrant chorus singing of Ernani’s troops. This is as viscerally thrilling as early Verdi scenes of this nature should be, particularly with the chorus in virile voice as I have noted already. 
Photographed in HD, and despite some gloomy settings the picture is clear with the sound uniformly good. One clearly detects the difference when singers turn their backs from the orchestra and conductor.
 
Thankfully these issues from C Major avoid the idiosyncratic numbering of the Chapters found on the earlier Dynamic issue, making double-checking, or repeating an aria or section, much easier. There is competition on DVD from La Scala in 1982 featuring Domingo in the title role alongside Mirella Freni, Renato Bruson and Nicolai Ghiaurov vibrantly conducted by Riccardo Muti. Also available is a 1983 performance from the Metropolitan Opera conducted by James Levine: a starry cast of Pavarotti, Sherrill Milnes and Ruggero Raimondi with Leone Mitchell as Elvira. Both are in 4:3 aspect ratio and visually show their age compared with HD. It is possible that the performance using the same Met production and sets which was transmitted live to cinemas around the world on 25 February 2012 will appear on DVD as other such High Definition transmissions have. The cast includes Marcello Giordani in the title role, Hvorostovsky, Furlanetto with Angela Meade, an impressive Elvira.
 
The present production and staging combines to overcome some vocal and acted weaknesses. It’s a fully satisfactory performance of an under-performed opera brimming with the composer’s compositional melody and vitality.

Robert J Farr

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