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Audacious Achievement: Verdi’s Ernani

Ernani, which premiered at Venice’s Teatro La Fenice on March 9, 1844, was Giuseppe Verdi’s fifth opera, but represented a significant departure and improvement from his previous works—Oberto (1839), Un Giorno di Regno (1840), Nabucco (1842) and I Lombardi alla Prima Crociata (1843). It was the first of his operas to successfully use what is now the conventional soprano-tenor-baritone-bass combination (though there is no important mezzo-soprano as one would find in many subsequent Verdi operas). This structure allowed Verdi to write thrilling solos, duets, trios, and quartets, something he did with increasing magnificence through his long creative life. When you listen to Ernani, you hear the audacious achievement of a young composer but also see how he planted the seeds for much of what was to come.

The opera is based on Victor Hugo’s 1830 play, Hernani. The story of a man, presumed to be a bandit but is in fact a nobleman fleeing the hated Spanish king Carlo V, spoke to Verdi’s passion for depicting rebellion against domination that already found expression in Nabucco and I Lombardi. The difference is that these two operas were created on a broad canvas with the chorus serving as oppressed peoples (seen by Italian audiences under Austrian domination as representing themselves). With Ernani, the political becomes personal and the title character is Verdi’s first great tenor role. He and the other three characters are subtle and detailed portraits of people with conflicting passions and responsibilities. Each character’s music has a range of colors that allow the listener to connect with the travails the character faces. 

Ernani loves Elvira and she loves him but she must marry her elderly uncle, the Spanish grandee Silva (a bass). Carlo (baritone) also loves Elvira. The story proceeds with jealous rivalry and murder. The important thing for the listener is to revel in how finely wrought are the music and text that tell the story of the four protagonists. We find in Ernani the template for masterpieces such as Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, and Simon Boccanegra. 

Ernani marked the beginning of one of Verdi’s most important artistic and personal relationships. This was the first libretto the composer used by Francesco Maria Piave (1810–1876). They would eventually collaborate on ten new operas: I Due Foscari (1844), Macbeth (1847, and the 1865 revision), Il Corsaro (1848), Stiffelio (1850), Rigoletto (1851), La Traviata (1853), Simon Boccanegra (1857), Aroldo (1857), La Forza del Destino (1862) as well as a revision of Attila (1846), whose original libretto was by Temistocle Solera. Piave, a great talent, was in awe of Verdi’s musical genius and willingly submitted to the composer’s skillful editing.

The lives of Verdi and Piave remained interlaced for more than three decades. Piave was based in Venice, where the world premieres of Ernani, Attila, Rigoletto, La Traviata, and Simon Boccanegra took place. In 1859, he moved to Milan at Verdi’s behest to become production manager of La Scala. At the end of 1867 Piave was paralyzed by an illness and withdrew from all work activities, leaving him in precarious financial shape. 

Verdi was an extraordinarily compassionate man who acknowledged and helped those in need. In 1869, he created a fund of ten thousand lire to support the librettist. He also created an Album per Canto, which included songs by Auber, Cagnoni, Mercadante, Ricci, and Thomas as well as one written by Verdi called Stornello. The abundant sales of this book for singers benefited Piave and his young daughter. When the librettist died in 1876, Verdi paid for all of the funeral expenses. 

Piave achieved a small miracle in crafting the libretto of Ernani. Venice, once a great maritime republic, was under the domination of the Austrian empire. All operas were subject to censorship and Verdi was a man of fervent anti-Austrian convictions. Their later collaboration, Rigoletto, had to be significantly modified to get past the censors as did Attila. Yet the libretto for Ernani, though it includes a rebellious figure who dares oppose a king, kept its dramatic impact while evading the censor’s pen. 

The title of the opera changed more than once. First it was Hernani. Then it became Ruy Gomez de Silva (named for that character and seen more from his viewpoint). Then L’Onore Castigliano (Castilian Honor) and, finally, Ernani. 

But there were other challenges. As the libretto took shape, Verdi began drafting music and motifs for the different characters. He also began hiring singers and writing music that suited their particular voices. In his mind’s ear, the opera would follow the model of certain works by Rossini in which the leading male role would be sung by a lower-voiced woman. Ernani would be sung by the contralto Carolina Vietti with soprano Sofia Loewe as Elvira. Carlo would be a tenor (Domenico Conti) and Silva would be a baritone (Antonio Superchi). At some point in his creative process, Verdi changed his mind, deciding that Ernani would be a tenor (Vietti was removed and replaced by Carlo Guasco), Elvira would remain a soprano (Loewe), Carlo became a baritone (Superchi) and Silva was written for bass (Settimio Rosi). In so doing, the music took on the sound and colors we hear today. 

The role of Ernani was, in many ways, something for a new kind of tenor in Italian opera. Before that, tenors in Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti were mostly expected to sing in a very high range with less volume and more flexibility across the octaves. They seldom called for the dramatic vocal heft Ernani requires. There are exceptions—think of Pollione in Bellini’s Norma and the title role in Donizetti’s Poliuto—but Ernani moved beyond those. He is a charismatic romantic lead who sings with passionate imperative and gorgeous flowing sound. In him we find the makings of Manrico in Il Trovatore,  the title role of Don Carlo,  Enrico (I Vespri Siciliani), Riccardo (Un Ballo in Maschera), Alvaro (La Forza del Destino), Radames in Aida, and even Otello, though that role is much more stentorian and less romantic. 

Elvira is a step forward from the vocally punishing soprano leads in Nabucco (Abigaille) and I Lombardi (Giselda). Although she has many challenges, the singer who undertakes this role has a lot of graceful music that makes her sympathetic to the audience. In the first act, a long solo set piece in three sections, “Sorta è la notte … Ernani, involami … Tutto sprezzo che d’Ernani,” is unlike anything Verdi had written before. In the course of the opera she has duets with Ernani, trios in which the bass joins in and the great ensemble that includes seven characters and the chorus at the end of the third act. Elvira is the first in a long line of sympathetic and beleaguered Verdi soprano heroines, including Luisa Miller, Elisabetta (Don Carlo), two Leonoras (Il Trovatore and La Forza del Destino), two Amelias (Un Ballo in Maschera and Simon Boccanegra), Aida, and Desdemona.

Carlo V is not the first great Verdi baritone role—that would be Nabucco—but his suave music and complex psychological profile puts him next in a line that would lead to Macbeth, Miller (Luisa Miller), Rigoletto, Conte di Luna (Il Trovatore), Giorgio Germont (La Traviata), Renato (Un Ballo in Maschera), Simon Boccanegra, Posa (Don Carlo), Amonasro (Aida), and Iago in Otello. 

Ernani is not new to San Francisco. It was first performed on April 8, 1851 in the city’s Adelphi Theatre. It returned three years later at the Metropolitan Theater as the opening night of a fifteen-performance engagement by a visiting Italian opera company that also presented Nabucco, Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia and Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia and Maria di Rohan. Of that Ernani, the critic for Wide West wrote, “taken as a whole, it is the best attempt at opera we have yet had.”

San Francisco Opera performed Ernani in 1968 (with Leontyne Price, Renato Cioni, Peter Glossop, and Ezio Flagello, conducted by Giuseppe Patanè) and in 1984 (with Montserrat Caballé, Nunzio Todisco, Sherrill Milnes, and Paul Plishka, conducted by Lamberto Gardelli). For some opera veterans the 2020 production was shaping up to be a welcome chance to hear Ernani again, while for most operagoers in San Francisco it would have been an opportunity to discover a masterpiece. 

Fred Plotkin, author of Opera 101, is the lead opera writer at WQXR.org and hosts Fred Plotkin on Fridays for Idagio.com.

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