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 “nightgown” (chemise de nuit) but had to write “the simple apparel of a beautiful woman unwillingly forced from sleep”). In Hernani one line of dialogue was considered particularly ludicrous: when Charles V asks, “Is it midnight?” and is answered, “Yes, midnight!” This was felt to be offensively unpoetic.
The Romantic movement, however, including distinguished figures like Honoré de Balzac, Théophile Gautier, and Gérard de Nerval, organized a claque to applaud most of the performances, and the run of the play made Hugo financially secure. It is clear that Verdi was planting his flag in the field of the most extreme Romanticism (though Ernani, admittedly, is not as silly as the next great opera of Verdi, Il Trovatore, where the gypsy Azucena tries to avenge her mother’s death by kidnapping the baby brother of the Count di Luna, whose father has ordered her mother burned at the stake; she intends to throw the baby into the still smoldering fire, and somewhat absentmindedly throws her own baby in by mistake). Ernani was his first durable success, performed regularly until the 1920s. Although supplanted by Verdi’s later work, recently it has been revived with success several times.
In Ernani, Verdi still finishes some phrases in the old-fashioned manner of Rossini with a little decorative arabesque, but he begins now to end many of the phrases more dramatically, with a series of declamatory accented notes, each one punched out with emphasis. This more exciting form, used as frequently as it is in Ernani, can become monotonous if it is not sung sensitively with a variety of dynamic inflections. In this work Verdi combines the driving energy he retained to the end of his life with a new genius for subtle lyrical expression.
The most famous recording of any part of Ernani is the 1924 disc by Rosa Ponselle of the aria “Ernani, involarmi” (“Ernani, save me”), which combines enormous power and the most exquisite delicacy. (On hearing this record, Maria Callas is said to have exclaimed, “Never, never play that again for me!”) In the production presented in February at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the young soprano Angela Meade had a lot of robust power and could drown out any other singer on the stage but had almost no delicacy and little refinement.
The only singer who retained throughout a consistently beautiful sound was the veteran Ferruccio Furlanetto, who played the villainous de Silva. Dmitri Hvorostovsky was intelligent and profoundly musical as Carlo V, but his voice was not always expertly focused until the third act, when he gave a moving rendition of Carlo’s great meditation on his youth.
The aria is accompanied by a repeating motif in a solo cello, played very insensitively the night I was there (it is an extraordinary inspiration that looks forward several decades to Otello’s third act, in which intense brooding on jealousy is accompanied by a similar obstinately repeated motif).
Ernani was originally written for the intimate theater in Venice, La Fenice, rather than the much larger La Scala in Milan, but at the Met, which seats four thousand, the doors to Elvira’s bedroom are gigantic enough for an entrance to a major museum, and the huge, sweeping staircases added around Charlemagne’s tomb at Aachen make no sense.