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Ernani by the Bay: How Verdi’s Fifth Opera Became San Francisco’s First Love

San Francisco was an opera town from the very beginning, and those culture-craving Gold Rush-era locals loved modern opera. A top contender as their absolute favorite was Ernani. It was first heard in San Francisco in 1851, a scant two years after the world rushed in to create this city. It was one of the first three operas performed here, after Bellini’s La Sonnambula and Norma earlier that year.

This was only seven years after Ernani’s world premiere in Venice—the fifth opera by the then thirty-year-old Giuseppe Verdi. Considering our city’s remoteness at the time, well before the railroad came, the score of Ernani was relatively hot off the presses.

The city had gotten a preview of Ernani the previous year, when the German artist Mathilde Korsinksy-Von Gulpen provided the first known Verdi performance here, Elvira’s aria “Ernani, involami,” which would soon become a local favorite. Ernani became so popular, especially in the 1850s, that it began to be parodied. As early as 1853 a burlesque titled Herr Nanny featured “a concerted piece with kitchen utensil accompaniments.”

We would be wrong to think of those early audiences as unsophisticated in their operatic tastes. Rough-hewn miners spitting tobacco juice and reeking of liquor were a feature in opera audiences, to be sure, but as researcher Doris Muscatine points out in her 1975 book, Old San Francisco: The Biography of the City from the Early Days to the Earthquake, “The Gold Rush attracted a very large number of educated men, including a percentage of college graduates, according to some historians, greater than in any other American city at the time.”

European immigrants seeking success here often had opera in their blood and were not only determined to keep culture in their lives, but—thanks to the wealth generated by the mines—had the means to afford the finer things in life. An opera review in 1852 waxed enthusiastic about “the beauty of San Francisco clustered together to listen ... a picture of wealth which even the Atlantic could not rival.”

And local music critics, far from uncultured, were often astutely observant and articulate, if sometimes longwinded. The Daily Dramatic Chronicle, reviewing an Ernani performance in 1868, raved about British soprano Euphrosyne Parepa-Rosa’s rendition of Elvira’s famous aria:

The opening recitative was given with fine artistic emphasis of which even those few bars sufficed to display the purity and power; but its wonderful compass and flexibility and the perfection of Madam Rosa’s intonation, even in the most rapid passages, were fully displayed in the “Ernani, involami,”and especially in the closing cadenza, of which she took the first eight notes with the full voice, repeating them sotto voce, and varying the termination of the cadenza so as to make brilliant flight into the upper regions of melody, lightly but fairly touching the high E-flat—an achievement which brought down the house.

As opera thrived in the city, the Ernani vogue continued into the 1880s. In 1882 it was featured in what we would now think of as a Broadway-style run, presented at the Tivoli Opera House (on Eddy St. between Powell and Mason) every night from August 31 to September 24, with divas Louise Lester and Louise Leighton trading off as Elvira. A stalwart tenor named T. W. Eckert apparently soldiered through the title role in every performance. Ernani was featured in 30 of the 49 seasons between its 1851 premiere here and the end of the century, with more than 150 performances. The town, it would seem, could not get enough.

Why were those early San Franciscans so eager for Ernani? One astute explanation was offered by the late Robert Commanday, esteemed Bay Area music critic and devoted historian of early opera in the region:

They must have found much in the extravagant melodrama of Ernani ... that identified with the West’s pioneer rough and tumble. Ernani has its hot-blooded hero, a nobleman turned bandit. There is the old Duke Don Luis Silva, as obstinate, one-tracked and abundantly virile as any crusty Forty-niner. There is the bad boy king, Don Carlo, reminding San Francisco’s Spanish population of its original political lot. Moreover, the plot idea—three men in mortal dispute over one woman—must have had particular relevance to San Francisco’s population situation—90 percent male.

In his fascinating history of opera in early San Francisco Verdi at the Golden Gate, George Martin suggests that the city’s early operagoers sensed the vital new thrust and energy with which Verdi was quickly moving Italian opera past the age of bel canto:

Far more than Bellini or Donizetti, [Verdi] sought for his dramas variety and contrast, and by means of these to attain a feel of accelerating pace—all qualities that San Franciscans found increasingly attractive ... Especially they responded to Ernani, an examination of the meaning of honor, in which a nobly born hero forced to turn bandit, having married the beautiful and loving Elvira, on his wedding night must redeem a pledge of suicide to his rival, Silva.

Martin then quotes Walt Whitman’s 1869 poem “Proud Music of the Storm”:

I see where Ernani walking the bridal garden
Amid the scent of night-roses, radiant, holding his bride by the hand,
Hears the infernal call, the death-pledge of the horn.

By the early 20th century Ernani began to fall from favor locally, yielding to the fame of Verdi’s later masterworks like Rigoletto, La Traviata, and Il Trovatore. San Francisco Opera in fact did not present the piece until 1968, as a vehicle for the talents of legendary soprano Leontyne Price. The San Francisco Examiner’s Arthur Bloomfield, citing what he called the “oom-pah-pah” character of early Verdi, opined that “the opera has the pimples, and some of the lovability, of youth. Inspired or not, the vocal line flows on with flying-trapeze brilliance.”

The most recent SFO production, in 1984, was problem-plagued: Luciano Pavarotti—then nearing the peak of his fame—was slated to sing the title role but withdrew on short notice due to a family illness. The little-known Italian tenor Nunzio Todisco arrived to save the day, but with meager success. Montserrat Caballé as Elvira battled painful phlebitis (leg inflammation) but managed to sing all but the last performance, when she was replaced by Mary Jane Johnson. Other big names in the cast included Sherrill Milnes (Don Carlo) and Paul Plishka (Silva), and the small role of Elvira’s nurse Giovanna was taken by the young but soon-to-be-famous Verdi mezzo Dolora Zajick.

As Ernani returns to our stage after a 36-year absence, it remains to be seen whether San Franciscans in the 21st century will embrace the work with the same enthusiasm that greeted it in the 19th. It is certainly no longer the “modern opera” it was back in this town’s early days. But today’s audiences, while perhaps viewing this superheated saga of honor and revenge through a more cynical contemporary lens, may be intrigued to know that it was once the opera that captured the young city’s heart.

Kip Cranna is Dramaturg Emeritus of San Francisco Opera where he served on the staff for 40 years.

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