Many aspects of this live recording of Ernani are very good. On a technical level the radio sound is excellent, and probably has the edge of over Muti’s live recording from La Scala. The clarity of the vocal lines is very good, and the off-stage effects are captured very successfully. The playing of the orchestra is superb, full of both dramatic sweep and extraordinary attention to detail, and Ozawa shows that he was very good at pacing an unfolding Verdi paragraph.
The problems however are considerable, and they exist chiefly in the performances of the two protagonists. The booklet notes argue strongly for Neil Schicoff’s popularity in Vienna, and they point out that he was made a Kammersänger during the run of this production. He certainly has the vocal heft and strength for the role, but he lacks the lyrical ardour that really needs to distinguish this hero. That’s a particular problem for his appearance in the first scene; maybe he just hadn’t warmed up properly, but he makes heavy weather of his aria and cabaletta. Things improve as the opera progresses, and he manages some poignancy in the final scene, but he doesn’t have the flair and sweep that this role requires. After all, Ernani is a pretty barmy character with all of his overblown ideas about honour, and to make him convincing it really takes a super tenor to do so. Pavarotti - better on DVD from the Met than his WNO recording - and Domingo (on Muti’s set) both do a much better job, as does the untouchable Carlo Bergonzi. Even more problematic is Michèle Crider’s Elvira, who makes the whole part sound effortful and difficult. She has to haul herself up to many of her top notes, and the hard work required detracts from the thrill of, say, her first act aria and cabaletta. She, too, improves as the opera continues, but her final scene is histrionic and warbly, taking Elvira’s pleading rather too far for my taste. Both Freni and Sutherland recorded this role too late in their careers, and the undisputed finest Elvira of them all remains Leontyne Price, both live from the Met and on Schippers’ RCA studio recording which, for me, is the finest Ernani on disc by a country mile.
Álvarez is much better as Don Carlo, singing with nobility, elegance and a great deal of beauty, especially compelling in the third act. Scandiuzzi also gives a good picture of elderly vindictiveness without lapsing into parody, and his pact with Ernani in the second act is exciting and sinister. The ensembles also go well, particularly the big one at the end of the first act, but aside from that there isn’t much that will make me come back to this set. In fact, I struggle to see why Orfeo have seen this as worthy of release, unless it be that they wanted to rush out a release of something (anything!) for the Verdi bicentenary in 2013. This one is only for die-hard fans of the artists involved.