None of Verdi’s four previous operas did as much as Ernani for his reputation. Ernani (1844) owed its popularity to the coattails of Victor Hugo’s monumental Hernani (1830). Critics who complain of Ernani’s plot devices totally misunderstand what Victor Hugo was trying to do. The play Hernani was a full-scale assault on the reigning New-Classicism of the day. Hugo deliberately flaunted the sacred unities of action, place, and time. He threw away mandatory attempts at verisimilitude. Freedom of expression was all.
Verdi’s fifth opera was his best so far, the first to win him fans outside Italy on the Continent, and the first to cross the English Channel into Britain. Ernani’s greatest fan was the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw. The other contender for number one fan was the American poet Walt Whitman, who in an 1855 article in Life Magazine, described his feelings during a performance of Verdi’s Ernani, “A new world — a liquid world — rushes like a torrent through you.”
But the playwright and music critic Shaw wins hands down by commenting in 1892 that ‘the chief glory of Victor Hugo as a stage poet was to have provided libretti for Verdi.” He believed that Verdi’s Ernani to be “That ultra-classical product of Romanticism, the grandiose Italian opera in which the executive art consists in a splendid display of personal heroics, and the drama arises out of the simplest and most universal stimulants to them.”
In 1894 Shaw immortalized the work in his own take on the Romantic theme of duty versus love in the comedy Arms and the Man:
RAINA (affectedly). I tell you these things to shew you that you are not in the house of ignorant country folk who would kill you the moment they saw your Servian uniform, but among civilized people. We go to Bucharest every year for the opera season; and I have spent a whole month in Vienna.
MAN. I saw that, dear young lady. I saw at once that you knew the world.
RAINA. Have you ever seen the opera of Ernani?
MAN. Is that the one with the devil in it in red velvet, and a soldier’s chorus?
RAINA (contemptuously). No!
MAN (stifling a heavy sigh of weariness). Then I don’t know it.
RAINA. I thought you might have remembered the great scene where Ernani, flying from his foes just as you are tonight, takes refuge in the castle of his bitterest enemy, an old Castilian noble. The noble refuses to give him up. His guest is sacred to him.
Like Shaw after him, Verdi was drawn to plays which could create a scandal. And Victor Hugo’s Hernani had created the greatest scandal in theater history. The play and the opera were taken very seriously:
“Recoiling from having his previous play rejected by the censor, Victor Hugo quickly wrote Hernani, a drama about “a soul who lives apart.” Hernani presents a hero in rebellion, dueling against the authority of a villainous king. The outlaw, Hernani, vies with Don Carlos for the hand of Dona Sol, engaged to her aged guardian. When Carlos becomes king of Spain, Hernani plots against him. However, the king magnanimously restores Hernani to his title, land, and beloved Dona Sol. But the guardian claims Dona Sol as his own. Honor-bound Hernani accepts death as his fate without Dona Sol. Dona Sol joins Hernani in a joint suicide that echoes Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. When his circle heard Hugo read Hernani, they cheered the play and the playwright. Censors approved the play for production at the Comedie Francaise.
Interest spread about the new play in rehearsal. Hugo had published his letter to the king to protest the censorship of Marion de Lorme. Passages of Hernani somehow found their way into newspapers and journals and even onto the vaudeville stage. The discussion of the new play heated to debate and argument. The press printed a flurry of attacks and defenses. Anonymous threats of riot, death, and “small civil war” appeared in the press. Hugo lost many of his oldest friends. Even Mademoiselle Mars, the thirty-year veteran actress of the Co-male Francaise, objected publicly to the “bad taste” of several lines her character, Dona Sol, was required to say.
The play opened on February 25, 1830, an extremely cold winter’s evening. Braziers lit the theatre. While a party of supporters planned its activities with Mrs. Hugo, the playwright attended last minute rehearsals. Volunteers came and left the Hugo house all day. Around 3 o’clock in the afternoon a group of eighty or ninety bohemians—singing, screaming obscenities, and chanting—arrived at the Comedie Francaise. The group, including Theophile Gautier and his shoulder-length blonde hair, Gerard de Nerval, Hector Berlioz, Honore de Balzac, and Stendhal, entered a side door and took over the pit and the upper gallery. For four hours they sang, cheered, ate, drank wine, and relieved themselves in corners of the national theatre of France.
When the bourgeois merchants, lords, and ladies arrived in their carriages and powdered wigs, they entered their theatre to see a drunken, unkempt mob carrying on amid a mess of food and the odor of wine and urine. Aristocrats scolded the mob from their boxes. Those in the pit and gallery shouted back. Even when the play began the audience was as active and vocal as the players on stage. Endless interruptions and yells from both supporters and detractors stopped the action. Yet by the end of the fifth act all were at least quiet.
Hernani was a tremendous popular success. The same drama played in the auditorium and on the stage for forty-five nights. Box-office receipts broke all records as audiences stayed an hour after each performance to cheer and argue. The public found what Hugo had promised in his Preface to Cromwell: a drama that was not just a mirror of life but a “concentrating mirror, which instead of weakening, concentrates and condenses the coloured rays, which makes of a mere gleam a light, and of a light a flame.”[i]
The selection of the Hugo play by Verdi established a pattern he would follow throughout his career: select a play with a history of scandal and hope to gain notoriety for your own work vicariously. That certainly happened to his opera Ernani, his first collaboration with the unknown poet and would-be librettist Francesco Maria Piave (1810-1876). Verdi prepared to confront the expected censorship for the political plot of the play
Verdi and Piave quickly established the dynamics of their relationship which would last for both men’s careers; Verdi never trusted Piave’s abilities and, as a result, always harried him unmercifully. Piave, in turn, responded with nothing but doglike devotion to the maestro.
Verdi’s enthusiasm for Hugo’s play at times seemed boundless. The energy in the music reflects that passion. . From the opening thunderous men’s chorus “Evviva! Benviamo!” the Lyric audience was put on notice that this performance would be unique musically, thanks to the intelligence and passion of the Lyric’s musical director, Enrique Mazzola, beginning his second year at the helm. His choral counterpart, Michael Black joined the adventure, resulting in superlative choral superlative singing throughout the production
At the Teatro La Fenice in Venice, Verdi insisted on choosing his own singers, on extravagant rehearsal time, and the right to put off the work’s due date until he was satisfied with the libretto. Verdi sought true human passion and sizzling confrontations in a typical Romantic plot conflict between love and duty. Verdi insisted that Piave follow Hugo’s revolutionary lead in its refusal to adhere to the Neo-Classical unities of time and place. The composer wanted Shakespearean inventiveness in a dramatic arc of diverse emotions. Verdi and Piave created a host of excitable characters with bold, almost ferocious interactions. Verdi berated Piave: “I urge brevity on you. It seems to me that when Carlo appears and surprises the conspirators the action must move rapidly to the end of the act.” Verdi also insisted that the opera end with a trio and not with a showpiece aria for soprano as had been the case throughout the first forty years of opera in Italy. The opera, with its political conspiracies, coronation, three-way love story features grand arias, duets, trios and ensembles.
The singers assembled by Maestro Mazzola are among the finest to be found. Beginning with Verdi superstar Russell Thomas as the bandit Ernani paired with the distinguished soprano Tamara Wilson their unrequited love culminated in one of the most beautiful renditions of ‘Tutto ora tace intorno” ever heard, due in no small measure to the delicate tempo and phrasing imparted to the singers by the Maestro. By the duet’s conclusion there was not a dry eye in the house.
Minute for minute, it is faster and more chock-filled with plot incidents than anything Verdi had yet composed. There are a half-dozen bold confrontations among these big personalities. Music critic Robert Levine calls Ernani “a fat-free, hot-blooded, rock ‘n’ roller of an opera with one great tune, one great idea, after another, and it doesn’t contain a dull moment.”
Ernani is a masculine opera. Men dominate the stage action. The highlight of the production was certainly the two arias sung by Quinn Kelsey, the production’s King Carlo, “Gran Dio!” and ‘Oh, de verd’anni miei sogni e bugiarde larve”. After hearing Mr. Kelsey sing, one knew why the word Grand was often inserted before the word Opera. Rounding out the trio of great male voices was one of opera’s all-time favorite singing actors, the versatile Christian Van Horn, who did his best to portray a character much older than himself while still singing gloriously. Caught in the middle of this trio was the soprano Tamara Wilson, playing the underwritten Elvira, whose presence was too often drowned by the stream of theatrical testosterone flowing thorough Verdi’s opera. Nevertheless, she was able to demonstrate her superior vocal understanding and technique.
Chicago received its first Ernani at a time when the country was torn by the opera’s theme: the conflict between love and duty, the Civil War era. In 1859 Metropolitan Concert Hall at the corner of LaSalle and Randolph offered Ernani sung by the city’s favorite soprano – Theresa Parodi (1827-1878) – while Giovani Sbriglia (1832-1916) sang the hero tenor role. In 1862 and again in 1865 the Jacob Grau-Muzio Italian Opera Company presented Ernani. The opera returned in 1866 with the Chioni and Susini Grand Italian Opera and againin 1867 with the LaGrange and Brignoli Grand Italian Opera company.
Not until after World War One did Verdi’s opera appear again in Chicago. The city’s own two-year-old Chicago Opera Association offered the opera in the Auditorium Theater in a production conducted by Giuseppe Sturani (1865-1949), at the behest of his friend conductor, Cleofante Campanini. The opera starred Italian Riccardo Stracciari (1875-1955) as Don Carlo, the “Mexican Nightingale” Angela Peralta (1845-1883) as Elvira, Vittorio Arimondi (1861-1928) as Silva, and Tito Gobbi’s voice teacher Giulio Crimi (1885-1939) as Ernani.
For almost seventy years Chicago was without an Ernani. Then in 1984 the new Lyric Opera offered a new Ernani based on the newly published critical edition. The production was to star Luciano Pavarotti as the bandit hero, but the tenor famously canceled his appearance. Lando Bartolini (1937-)stepped into his place to join Grace Bumbry’s (1937-) Elvira and Nicolai Ghiaurov’s (1929-2004) Silva, and Piero Cappuccilli’s (1929-2005) Don Carlo The opera was conducted by Donato Renzetti (1950-) future teacher of Gianandrea Noseda, who made up in conducting what the production lacked in acting and singing.
In 2004 Skokie’s North Shore Center for the Performing Arts presented Ernani by the relatively new Da Corneta Opera company, conducted by Victoria Bond (1945-), with Montanan Christopher Bengochea as the bandit-hero, Kelli Finn as Elvira. Bass Alvaro Ramirez and baritone Tom Hall rounded out the cast with created a “thrilling” trio at the opera’s close.
Five years later Lyric Opera got on the Ernani bandwagon with a production starring Sondra Radvanovsky, wearing a five-pound ankle cast, as Elvira. Italian tenor Salvatore Licitra 1968-2011) played Ernani, Israeli baritone Boaz Daniel assayed Don Carlo, and the Italian Giacomo Prestia (1960-)offered Silva. Radio critic Andrew Palmer summed up the production:
“Lyric production design director Scott Marr created the clean, intelligent, simple and appropriate sets and costumes, lit by veteran Duane Schuler. The young Argentinean-born director Jose Maria Condemi in his first new production at Lyric somehow understands the motivations of these melodramatic characters and is able to take them seriously while having some fun with them.”
Jose Maria Condemi’s production returns in 2022, uncredited, this time directed by Louisa Muller. Ms. Muller had done such a bang up job last season with Tosca that I had high hopes for her Ernani. The hopes did not last long. Muller invented the character of the ghost of Ernani’s father, who wandered (loitered would be a better word) throughout the action. Ms. Muller failed to realize that the only ghosts on stage are those ghosts with a direct hand in the unfolding of the plot, as with the ghost of Hamlet’s father and the ghosts in Dicken’s Christmas Carol. More time should have been spent supporting Mr. Thomas with his Ernani than helping Mr. Piave cast the opera. Ernani has done quite well for 170 years without an irrelevant ghost. The character of Ernani needs a director to assist the singing actor find a through line of action for the character. Mr Thomas seemed abandoned as he veered between a desire to kill Carlo and a desire to wed Elvira. The objectives needed to be reconciled so that his dramatic performance could match his musical performance.
Scott Marr’s scenery and costumes are lovely, but afford a director few opportunities to create places of emphasis in the stage picturization and in composition. Ms. Muller should have addressed this in production conferences. Fortunately the ever-reliable and talented Duane Schuler created emphatic characters through subtle and pin pointed lighting. He saved the day. Also, Mr. Marr took great pains to create the illusion of a distant time and place. Why allow Covid masks on the chorus to undermine his achievement? If the voices are necessary, they should be placed out of view, behind scenery, or just off stage, rather than continually remind the audience of Covid. As it was, the covid masks produced an unfortunately successful execution of Brecht’s alienation effect
Critics who complain of early Verdi should thank their lucky stars that they are given an opportunity to experience a master work, rather than an almost obligatory, and forgettable, “new opera”. Verdi’s richness of imagination and musical experimentation know few rivals. Whenever and whatever work of his appears on our stage, we should be grateful that there remain men and women of discernment.
[i] Paul Kuritz, The Making of Theatre History (New York: Prentice Hall, 1988), p. 278-279.