In 1786, the thirty-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who composed the finest Italian operas of the eighteenth century, decided to make an opera from the most controversial play of his time, the French comedy The Marriage of Figaro by Caron de Beaumarchais. About a half-century later, in 1843, the thirty-year-old Giuseppe Verdi, who wrote the greatest Italian operas of the nineteenth century, followed suit and chose to turn the most shockingly controversial drama of his own time—Hernani by Victor Hugo—into an opera.
The Paris premiere of Hugo’s play in 1830 (described as “The Battle of Hernani” in literary history) makes the notorious first performance of Le Sacre du Printemps seem like a polite tea party by comparison. For most of the first run of the play almost every line was booed or hissed, and the reviews with one exception were venomously negative. Difficult to accept is the melodramatic gimmick central to the plot of the opera and the play (what the director Alfred Hitchcock used to call “the MacGuffin”): the bandit hero offers to commit suicide if he is given time to assassinate Charles V in order to avenge his father’s death, presenting his elderly jailer de Silva, a “grandee of Spain,” with a horn, and swearing that he will kill himself when he hears the sound of the horn. The idea of killing a Hapsburg monarch must have seemed politically very reasonable to an Italian public of the 1840s, when much of northern Italy was part of the Austrian Empire.
Ernani does not, in fact, succeed in assassinating Charles V, who captures his would-be assassins, pardoning them all as he has just become Holy Roman Emperor and wishes to demonstrate a new sense of mercy, even uniting Ernani with the woman he loves. Of course, the sound of the horn interrupts the wedding festivities. In the opera the hero stabs himself, but in the play both hero and heroine take poison, as she wrests the poisoned philter from him and hands it back to him half empty. She appears to be dead at the end of the opera as well, but it is not clear why, unless she dies of a broken heart naturally, having witnessed her husband’s suicide on the wedding night before the marriage could be consummated. Even with all the difficulties that burden the spectators’ necessary suspension of disbelief, Ernani is the first opera that gives a convincing idea of the extraordinary range of Verdi’s genius.
Almost all the organs of culture at the time of the play’s premiere, including the press, were controlled by the “classicists,” who, horrified at the new Romantic aesthetic—the melodramatic situations and the refusal to use elegant circumlocutions (in a famous example from Britannicus, Racine could not use the word …