Monday, July 9, 2012

Verdi: Ernani (Metropolitan Opera, 2/25/12)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I screened a recent Metropolitan Opera broadcast of Verdi’s opera Ernani — originally broadcast to movie theatres through the “Live in HD” program on February 25 and rebroadcast on KPBS Sunday, June 24 at noon (in the Sunday morning/afternoon ghetto in which the local PBS affiliate has exiled so many of the best programs, not only the Met’s live operas but also Moyers and Company) — which was quite entertaining even though I have much fonder memories of an earlier Met telecast of Ernani from 1983, when this production (by Pier Luigi Samartini with costumes by Peter J. Hall) was brand-new and Ernani was played by Luciano Pavarotti, who despite his bulk had enough charisma and sheer energy to suggest the Errol Flynn-esque action hero the character should be. This time around Ernani was Marcello Giordani, a competent enough tenor even though there’s a rather nasty vibrato in his voice (not quite a wobble but the sort of thing hard-core opera nuts call a “bleat”), the heroine Elvira was Angela Meade (who in 2008 did the 42nd Street number and sang in this production as a last-minute replacement for an indisposed Sondra Radvanovsky, who some modern-day opera freaks consider the world’s greatest still-living and still-singing Verdi soprano.

This time Meade got the star part from the get-go, and the lower-voiced men were Dimitri Hvorotovsky as Don Carlo (a.k.a. Charles V, king of Spain) and Ferruccio Furlanetto as the real baddie of the piece, de Silva. The plot came from a play by Victor Hugo called Hernani — though Verdi’s librettist, Francesco Maria Piave (who’s had a lot of nasty things said about him by Verdi’s biographers, though by and large I think Verdi’s operas with Piave as librettist or co-librettist tend to be stronger than his ones with other writers — at least until he used Arrigo Boïto for Otello and Falstaff, which had the benefit of Shakespeare-derived plots as well!), changed the names of the lead characters from Hernani and Doña Sol to Ernani and Elvira, no doubt to give the singers something easier to pronounce. Hernani the play is far better known for the riot that broke out during its premiere than for its plot; at the time virtually all serious French drama was written in a strict poetic meter called the alexandrine, and when Hugo, a few minutes into the story, had one character interrupt another character in mid-alexandrine some people in the audience were so upset they started screaming their disapproval. (He was probably influenced in this by Shakespeare, whose plays had started filtering into the rest of Europe in the early 19th century; playwrights in continental Europe wondered why their dramas had to be so stiff and formal when an Englishman writing 300 years earlier had broken or simply ignored all the hallowed rules and constructed plays where lines broke off, characters interrupted each other all the time, and the plots freely mixed drama and comedy, and wandered all over the place instead of following the Aristotle-prescribed unities of time — a single day’s duration — and place: just one locale.)

Some of Shakespeare’s plays stretch the suspension of disbelief but in Hernani Hugo did a taffy-pull with it; Hernani is the son of a nobleman who fell from favor when Holy Roman Emperor Charles V became King Charles I of Spain; Hernani’s father is executed by the King’s order and Hernani is forced to assemble a band of outlaws and make his living as a bandit. When the opera opens he’s singing a song to his merry men — the aria “Come rugiada al cespite” — saying that he’s just met and fallen in love with a young woman, Elvira, who’s living at the castle of Don Ruiz Gomez de Silva, but that Silva is going to force her to marry him. Desperate to see Elvira before she gets hitched to the other guy, Ernani crashes the castle — just after Elvira has sung her big aria, “Ernani, involami,” expressing hope that he’ll come for her and Take Her Away From All That — only Silva catches him and they’re about to fight a duel when yet a third contender for Elvira’s affections, King Charles V himself, shows up. Charles presses his suit on Elvira but she’s aware that he’s already married and therefore the best she can expect from him would be his mistress, or “favorite” as the euphemism went, and she’s not interested in a guy she can’t lawfully marry and live with above-board. In the second act Ernani, believed to be dead, shows up in disguise as a pilgrim and Elvira says she’s going to kill herself rather than go through the forced marriage to Silva. Silva feels bound by the laws of hospitality to shelter Ernani when the king’s men show up to arrest him, and when the king leaves with Elvira as a hostage Ernani and Silva make a pact to rescue her, but with a proviso that has to be one of the most ridiculous dramatic devices in history: as the price of Silva’s help to rescue Elvira, Ernani must kill himself whenever Silva blows his hunting horn (a quite different use of the hunting horn than in the other most famous opera that contains one, Wagner’s Siegfried).

In Act III, Charles is about to be elected Holy Roman Emperor (in actual history he was Holy Roman Emperor before he was made king of Spain, which led to him being Charles V as Holy Roman Emperor and Charles I as king of Spain — three kings later the king of Spain was Charles II) but he still finds time to worry about that pesky business with Elvira, Ernani and Silva. Ernani sneaks into the chamber where Charles is pondering his new title and attempts to assassinate him, but is caught. Elvira pleads for Ernani’s life, and Charles, like King Marke in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, realizes he can’t hold his reluctant woman any longer and decides not only to pardon Ernani but allow him and Elvira to wed. Act IV takes place on the morning of Ernani’s and Elvira’s wedding, but if you think either Victor Hugo or Francesco Maria Piave were going to let this story have a happy ending, you’ve got another think coming: Silva blows his hunting horn on cue, and after a bit of byplay in which Ernani tries to talk him out of it and Silva accuses him of being a dishonorable character (the people who defend this ridiculous story like to say it’s all about “honor,” but it manages to make “honor” look as stupid and bone-headed as Sir John Falstaff said it was in the marvelous monologue from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, part 1 that Verdi and Boïto incorporated into the opera Falstaff even though they took most of its plot from The Merry Wives of Windsor), Ernani takes Silva’s dagger and duly stabs himself in the chest, using his last breath to implore Elvira to go on living. That’s how Piave’s original libretto actually ended it, but in this production Elvira takes the dagger (with Ernani’s blood still on it!) and stabs herself as well, though being opera leads the two still get to do a surprising amount of last-minute singing before they expire.

As stupid as its plot is (the business about Ernani having to kill himself whenever Silva blows his horn seemed ridiculous to me as a child, when I first read the story of this opera on the liner notes to a highlights album on the short-lived Regent label called The Heart of Ernani, which for years left me thinking that The Heart of Ernani was actually the opera’s title, and it still seems ridiculous), Ernani is actually one of Verdi’s best early operas — it was his fifth one out of either 26 or 29 (depending on whether you count his extensive revisions of I Lombardi, Stiffelio and Simon Boccanegra as different operas) — composed in the wake of his mega-hits Nabucco and I Lombardi and featuring rousing choruses, strong arias and gripping ensembles. The Met’s staging was traditional, which is a good thing; the scenery and costumes are actually historically appropriate for the opera’s setting in 16th century Spain (as opposed to all those “Eurotrash” performances which not only move the time and place up but present a confusing mishmash of historical, modern and symbolic costumes, often following a scheme of symbolism and metaphor that is a mystery from the director’s head) and the action moves effectively across the Met’s big stage, though I could have done without the shots between acts of the stagehands pushing scenery around. The singing was a bit more problematic: as I noted above, Giordani has an acceptable but not great tenor voice, and though he’s considerably less massive than Pavarotti was in this role he’s also considerably less charismatic and appealing. (Pavarotti insisted on singing an extra aria Verdi had inserted into Ernani years after its premiere to assuage the ego of a tenor who didn’t think the original score had given him enough to do; the interpolation wasn’t made in this production, and it’s probably just as well.)

Hvorotovsky and Furlanetto are old pros, and though Furlanetto’s voice has got pretty thread-bare by now it’s not inappropriate for an old character whose age, and the bitterness that has come with it, is actually a major part of the plot. Hvorotovsky is enough of a dreamboat (when he arrived on the scene he was hailed as much for his blond good looks as his voice) even now that he’s the sexiest of the three guys, both physically and vocally, but he was never a great singing actor and he doesn’t make the kind of impact in Carlo’s great scene (a marvelous piece of vocal writing that anticipates “Ella giammai m’amo,” the great scena Verdi gave Charles V’s successor, Philip II, in Don Carlos) Sherrill Milnes did in the Pavarotti broadcast. Surprisingly, Angela Meade, the least-known cast member, turned in the best performance; she’s been compared to Joan Sutherland, and like La Stupenda she’s clearly a “woman of size,” but though she was hampered by conductor Marco Armiliato’s poky tempi on her big aria (where the recorded competition includes stunning performances by Rosa Ponselle and Maria Callas!) he sped up for the ensembles and she tore through the role as if this bizarre concatenation of melodramatic plot devices and situations actually meant something. The commentary for the broadcast described Ernani as “bel canto,” a term usually used to refer to the immediately previous generation of Italian opera composers (Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini); in Ernani Verdi was clearly using some of the devices of bel canto (the vocal displays and the slow-fast cavatina-cabaletta structure of several of the arias), but he was already growing beyond that style and writing music that delved deeper into the emotions than any previous Italian opera composer had and needed a stronger, louder, more assertive style of singing. This production certainly does the work justice!

And for comparison's sake, here are my notes on the 1983 Met telecast of Ernani:

Anyway, yesterday began with me watching a very different kind of music video: Verdi’s Ernani, broadcast by the Metropolitan Opera December 17, 1983 (but taped five days earlier), with James Levine conducting a stellar cast featuring Luciano Pavarotti as Ernani, Leona Mitchell as Elvira, Sherrill Milnes as Charles V, Ruggiero Raimondi as Silva and a surprisingly good comprimario, Charles Anthony, as the King’s squire. (Whatever happened to him?) This was actually only Verdi’s fifth opera, and it’s in his best early-Romantic genre, a four-sided romantic triangle (all three of the male leads are in love with the same woman) featuring nobleman-turned-outlaws (one wonders if Johnston McCulley copied Ernani and its source, Victor Hugo’s play Hernani, in creating the character of Zorro), sinister guardians, put-upon wards, amorous kings and codes of honor so ridiculous that, in one of the sillier plot twists in any kind of fiction ever, the hero Ernani is obliged, as a point of “honor,” to kill himself whenever the villain Silva blows his hunting horn. (I remember reading that as a child, in the liner notes to my mother’s copy of the Regent Records album The Heart of “Ernani” — and even then I thought the idea was silly.) Verdi’s music is toe-tapping in its rhythmic insistence (the fact that I had the same visceral reaction to the opening chorus of Ernani as I did to Nirvana’s “About a Girl” — both made me tap my feet in time — is revealing), and the structure of the work is straightforward and predictable. Hugo’s Hernani may have revolutionized French drama with its structural innovations (its sprawling, Shakespearean plot and its bold “breaks” in the traditional metrical structure of French blank verse), but Verdi’s opera version broke no comparable new ground in Italian opera (that had to wait for his second Hugo adaptation, Rigoletto).

As for this performance, Robert Levine had harsh words for it in his survey of Verdi on video in the summer/fall 1987 Opera Quarterly, being particularly withering towards the sets (“so large as to make the characters seem like they are in different operas”) and Leona Mitchell’s Elvira (“devoid of temperament, without the right timbre for the role, who chooses odd, unmusical moments to take breaths and who lacks the chest voice to make some dramatic statements”). I agree with him about the sets — especially Elvira’s bedroom, with a 50-foot painting (nothing in medieval art, other than actual murals, was that big) dominating the wall — though I attribute their unreasonable size more to the amount of stage space they have to cover at the “new Met” than anything else — but I think he’s being woefully unfair to Mitchell. Granted, she’s not Ponselle or Callas, but within her vocal limitations I think she does an excellent job of creating the character, and though she’s somewhat overshadowed by the men, that’s partly Verdi’s fault (that’s the way he wrote the opera!) and partly Levine’s (for casting the three male roles stronger than the female one). Barring a time machine that would give us access to the Met’s 1928-29 production (with Martinelli, Ponselle, Ruffo and Pinza!), this is probably as good an Ernani as we’re going to get, featuring Pavarotti (singing the music rather than playing to the galleries, and reminding us all once again of how good a tenor this man really is, especially singing music that “fits” his voice as well as this does), Milnes (who practically steals the performance in the scene in Charlemagne’s tomb, vividly acting the complex role and singing his heart out) and Raimondi (properly oily and cadaverous, strikingly — and appropriately — resembling Vincent Price in his makeup and mannerisms). Levine, an uneven conductor, is in his element in this score, and while he makes some odd textual choices (a cabaletta to “Infelice! E tuo credevi” and an extended second-act finale that gives Pavarotti another aria — both added by Verdi after the premiere to meet singers’ demands in subsequent productions), this is a display opera, whose appeal is visceral rather than intellectual, and therefore the additions are welcome. — 2/8/95


I got my journal written at noon to 1:30, then read the remainder of Victor Hugo’s Hernani and tried to take a nap (which I couldn’t do because I was too congested). Hernani, like Oscar Wilde’s Salome, is one of those plays that seems to have been destined from birth for opera librettohood. Its characters ceaselessly explain themselves to themselves, giving readers little respite as they go over and over again, in tortuous detail, to tell us how much they love/hate/fear/want revenge on each other. Without Verdi’s music to back it up, a straight performance of Hugo’s play to a modern audience would result in total laughter (about the only way to make Hernani a viable stage property in the modern era would be to write a virtually new play around it, dramatizing the controversy that surrounded its first performance, with a theatre audience onstage, ostensibly watching the first performance of the play and alternately cheering and hissing as the French literary factions actually did during the real premiere). Verdi and his librettist, Francesco Maria Piave (first of something like 12 collaborations between them, including Macbeth, Rigoletto, Traviata, La Forza del Destino and most of Verdi’s best pre-Boïto operas), adapted it almost “straight,” adding an opening chorus and aria for Ernani (they probably dropped the “H” from his alias out of sheer concern for euphony; they also changed the heroine’s name from Doña Sol to Elvira because the latter was easier to sing) but otherwise changing little except softening the ending (in the play, Hernani and Doña Sol drink poison together, after which Silva kills himself as well; in the opera, only Ernani actually dies onstage); the fact that it works much better set to music only confirms the accuracy of Ethan Mordden’s comment that opera is “the last refuge of the high style,” and even there (as Bernard Shaw noted at the end of the 19th century), the greater psychological realism of the operas of Wagner, Bizet (Carmen, at least), the later Verdi and the Italian composers who followed him had made Ernani seemed old-fashioned and pointless. — 2/15/95