Today (Saturday Feb 25, 2012) the Metropolitan Opera presented Verdi’s Ernani on it’s HD network. There was something about a Spanish setting that set Verdi’s creative fire at conflagration level. Ernani in style and color most closely resembles Il Trovatore, though of course, it’s not as inspired even if its plot is almost as crazy. Verdi was only 30 when he wrote the work – his first collaboration with Francesco Maria Piave – his fifth opera. Based on Victor Hugo’s Hernani, Ernani gained international recognition for the young composer. A tenor, baritone, and a bass love the soprano. It takes no special knowledge of opera to decide that she loves the tenor. The baritone becomes an emperor and thus realizes that he can have young girls by the carload so he goes away. The bass is older than rust and won’t give up the girl which results in the tenor stabbing himself. Don’t ask for the gory details. The soprano is supposed to swoon after her boyfriend impales himself, but in this production she stabs herself as well leaving the elderly bass with the stage to himself – a bass’s dream.
Hernani caused a riot at its premiere in 1830. It overthrew the verities of classical French drama in favor of romanticism which took more than half a century to get from Germany to France. Gone were the unities of time and place. Today, Hugo’s play is almost entirely known as the source of Verdi’s opera.
For Ernani to succeed four outstanding singers are needed, but they cannot carry the work without a great conductor. Unfortunately, Marco Armiliato was asleep at the stick today. His reading had none of the fire and drive required. Ernani has to project energy; its esembles are almost ferocious when done properly. Today they were tame. If the Met can’t find the right conductor for this opera, it should remain on the shelf. There was a reason that Rossini called the young Verdi “A composer in a helmet.”
The best part in Ernani belongs to the baritone. In Dmitri Hvorostovsky the Met had the best Verdi baritone now active. He also looked every inch a young king and then emperor. ‘Vieni meco, sol di rose’ was sung with caressing sweetness. ‘Oh de’verd’anni miei’ received a powerful and nuanced rendition. Hvorostovsky didn’t push his voice as he sometimes does in Verdi. Finally, ‘O sommo Carlo ‘ capped his dominance of the the third act and anchored the act’s great finale. This run is the great Russian’s first go at this role. It’s one he’ll doubtless repeat. He has everything a great Verdi baritone needs except great amplitude. I wonder if he’ll ever attempt Rigoletto, the summa of Verdi baritones. [A reader informs me that Hvorostovsky has already sung Rigoletto. Added Feb 29]
Strangely, the weakest role in this opera is it’s title part. Ernani sings one aria – ‘O tu che l’alma adora’ which could just as easily have been written by any of Verdi’s lesser contemporaries. When it’s over, it’s over and forgotten. Marcello Giordani has made a major career out of being competent. He always gets the notes out as written. His voice is pleasant. When he’s the tenor you can be certain disaster will not strike, but you’re unlikely to make a special trip to hear him. If he played for the Mets baseball team rather than the Met opera he’d bat sixth. Ernani spends most of the opera asking the other male characters to kill him, it’s only after they fail to do so that he does it himself.
Sixty two year old bass Ferrucio Furlanetto is about the same age as the character he portrays in Ernani – the lecherous Don Ruy Gomez De Silva. Silva is hopelessly infatuated with a girl several generations younger than he is which is what drives the plot. Furlanetto doesn’t quite have the vocal sheen that he once had, but he’ still just about as good a Verdi bass as you can find. ‘In felice! e tu credevi’ and its cabaletta (which is not in the in original score) were sung well enough to make you almost feel sorry for the old homicidal lecher.
Angela Meade is a newcomer who has recently won several prizes awarded to young singers thought to be on the verge of major careers. She has a lovely spinto voice which was up to the challenges Elvira presents. Remember this is a role that Zinka Milanov and Leontyne Price sang with this company. She managed the difficulties of ‘Ernani! Ernani, involami’ and its cabaletta ‘Tutto sprezzo che d’Ernani’ with aplomb. She can sing softly with full vocal support, trill, and tossed off the aria’s fioritura with ease. She doesn’t yet have a distinctive vocal personality, but her’s is definitely a talent to watch. She has a major weight problem that at age 34 threatens to derail both her career and health. Hopefully she can find a way to control it.
Pier Luigi Samaritani’s almost 30 year old production is like a giant upholstered sofa in a studio apartment. It’s in the way, takes too long to change from one scene to another, and in general is excessive. Ernani can do with a painted backdrop if the singers and conductor are right. After all this is not verismo opera. Verisimilitude is checked with your coat. For example, how did all of Spain get from Castile and Aragon to Aachen which is 1000 miles away between act 2 and act 3 and then get back to Spain in time for act 4? Why does Don Carlo, ruler of half the world, wear the same suit for all four acts? You’d hope that he had it cleaned in Aachen.
Barbara Willis Sweete was the TV director. There were a lot of close ups, but nothing that required health insurance. In summary, a lot of good singing with poor support from the pit in an engorged and overstuffed production. Ignoring the pedestrian conducting, the performance works better with only the audio on. In fact, when I got home I listened to the recording of it and liked it better than I did in the theater. Finally, I was surprised that there were a lot of empty seats at the Met this afternoon. Verdi and a fine cast should have filled the house. This was the last performance of this series. Perhaps word had spread that it lacked the visceral excitement Ernani requires.
Metropolitan Opera House
February 25, 2012 Matinee
Giuseppe Verdi–Francesco Maria Piave
Don Carlo……………Dmitri Hvorostovsky
Don Ruy Gomez de Silva..Ferruccio Furlanetto
Giovanna…………….Mary Ann McCormick
Don Riccardo…………Adam Laurence Herskowitz
Production…………..Pier Luigi Samaritani
Set Designer…………Pier Luigi Samaritani
Costume Designer……..Peter J. Hall
Lighting Designer…….Gil Wechsler
Stage Director……….Peter McClintock
TV Director………….Barbara Willis Sweete