Verdi’s fifth opera was his first opera to be premiered away from La Scala, the first to be premiered in Venice, and the composer’s first international success. The opera is, in many ways, a dress rehearsal for Il Trovatore which is resembles in setting, tone, melodic fecundity, and ferocious intensity. It also marks the emergence of a great phenomenon of the lyric stage – the Verdi baritone. Unlike Trovatore, the tenor despite being the title character, has the least interesting part among the four principal roles. But again like the later opera everyone in Ernani is demented – ready to kill, die, or sacrifice for invisible reasons. This hyper-hysteria evokes from Verdi some of his most thrilling and impassioned music.
Based on Victor Hugo’s notorious attack on classicism, Hernani (1830) the opera takes place in Spain except for the 3rd act which is set at Charlemagne’s tomb in Aix-la-Chapelle which is 1492 kilometers to the northeast. Everyone, including the meanest super, seems to have made the journey. In a 16th century jiffy they were back in Spain in time for Ernani’s aborted wedding which comprise the opera’s 4th and final act. He kills himself instead of entering into connubial bliss because the bass blows a horn. If you don’t understand why, just chalk it up to Italian opera. In this context it makes sense.
This performance was recorded at Parma’s Teatro Regio in May of 2005. The production is, as is typical for the Parma house, period specific. Also typical is the mostly bare stage heightened by vivid backdrops. This approach works very well. It allows the chorus and extras to be moved with effectiveness and style which is visually very appealing. I look forward to seeing how the company will mount Don Carlo and Aida.
The title role in this production was sung by Marco Berti who sang the tenor leads in both Turandot and Il Trovatore this season at the Met. He has a steely spinto that seems, as far as one can tell from a recording, to be very big. Though he can sing with restraint when he feels like it, he’s more of a belt it out tenor which is exactly what his role requires. He had the most vocal firepower among the four principals. Unfortunately, as I’ve mentioned, his role is the least important of the four.
Susan Neves was Elvira – the object of everyone’s desire. She has sung 50 performances at the Met, all in supporting roles except for four appearances as Abigaille in Verdi’s Nabucco in 2004. She has a solid spinto that dealt with her role satisfactorily. ‘Ernani involami’ was sung rather blandly. Elvira is not one of Verdi’s best defined sopranos. It requires an atypical sound for Verdi. I heard Milanov do the role in 1956 and she had trouble with the first act aria. Elvira is nothing like the two lush Leonora’s that came later. Maria Callas, in my opinion, was better suited for this role. Incidentally, Ms Neves lost 162 pounds following a gastric bypass in 2008, a procedure she speaks about openly.
Giacomo Prestia has a resonant bass. He was suitably vindictive as Elvira’s elderly but implacable (forced) fiancé. His dark voice conveyed Silva’s menace with distinction.
This leaves the role of Don Carlo, the first of Verdi’s great high baritone parts. Carlo Guelfi was good in the part which to be fully realized needs the resources of a Warren or MacNeil. There was no interpolated high A at the end of Gran Dio…Oh de’ verdi anni miei. Workmanlike is the term that comes to mind. Carlo is the only character in this opera who is more than one dimensional. He grows as the work progresses and actually forgives the rest of the cast who, of course, are all against him. Guelfi has sung more than 50 leading roles at the Met, most of them by Verdi.
Let’s go back to the first act where there is a trio in the act’s second scene which is in energy and situation exactly like the trio in the second scene of the first act of Il Trovatore. Guelfi is joined by Neves and Berti. Act 1 trio. The trio, exciting as it is, shows conductor Antonello Allemandi sometimes lax beat, though he was more often than not on the mark.
Once again, there is a big part for the chorus. The Parma ensemble acquitted themselves admirably. ‘Si ridesti il leon di Castiglia’ was as rousing as Verdi intended. The staging was uniformly very good.
In summary a very good performance of an opera that’s very difficult to get right. The Parma company on this DVD has preserved a good performance from one of Italy’s leading provincial opera companies. It’s worth having as part of Parma’s complete Verdi cycle, but otherwise there are better versions available.