Ernani’s Convoluted Plot Taken at a Gallop Amid Gothic Gloom

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Verdi, Ernani: Met Live in HD staged by Peter McClintock and directed for television by Barbara Willis Sweete with Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera, New York / Marco Armiliato (conductor), broadcast to the Barbican Cinema, London, 25.2.12. (JPr)

Verdi's Ernani Photo: Metropolitan Opera

Verdi had only turned 30 when his fifth opera, Ernani, was a success in 1844 and it has been both revered and ridiculed ever since. Clearly the major flaw in this work – its repetitive early Verdi ‘rum-ti-tum’ music notwithstanding – is due to its ridiculous story and it is a case of ‘abandon all hope (of plausibility) ye who enter here’. The convoluted libretto was by Francesco Maria Piave and apparently actually improved on its source text, Victor Hugo’s 1830 Hernani, that caused a stir at its own première. The confusion arises through too many changes of ‘heart’ amongst the four principal characters who all want to marry Elvira, the maid-in-the-castle. Firstly she is betrothed to her elderly cousin, Silva, but actually loves Ernani, the disgraced nobleman who is in disguise and has become a bandit. Add to this Don Carlo, the King of Spain, wants to spirit her away at the same time when he should be concentrating of getting himself elected as Holy Roman Emperor. Silva saves Ernani’s life and they form an uneasy alliance to save Elvira from Don Carlo’s clutches and vow get revenge on him. (I hope you are following this so far!) However Ernani’s pact with Silva involves him agreeing to die almost anytime he wants by giving him a horn to blow. Don Carlo is elected Emperor and in an incredible about-turn renounces his claim on Elvira, pardons Ernani and consents to their marriage. At the sound of a horn call the tragic ending is ensured, Silva appears and redeems Ernani’s pledge and he stabs himself. This is about as good an account of the ludicrous plot as you are ever likely to read!

The production is a revival of Pier-Luigi Samaritani’s 1983 out-dated traditional and monumental staging last seen at the Met in 2008 after almost two decades’ absence. There are vast moonscapes, enormous towers and sweeping staircases, huge paintings and billowing drapes. It all fills the stage atmospherically, even if there is a little too much gothic gloom, and efficiently allows the chorus and principals somewhere to stand, emote and sing. Also from the interminable scene changes we could watch during this broadcast this set does little except keep the Met’s unionised – and clearly over-manned – stage crew busy. You get the feeling that if the wrong person picked up a paintbrush or a fixing they would probably all go out on strike.

Apart from the fact the Met audience apparently love this sort of thing there is little justification in the twenty-first century for staging this opera at all. There is just nothing that can be done with the story that is not going to appear risible at some points during the evening. Peter J Hall’s costumes are handsome but heavy and cumbersome and seem to have walked straight out of the paintings of Velázquez and his contemporaries.

The roles of the four central characters are fearsome enough that they have probably have enough to do without thinking about acting their parts and this is another reason why Ernani would work best in concert. Given as here, four singers none of whom seem particularly instinctive actors for one reason or another, it all verged on ‘semi-staging’ territory anyway where all anybody does is stand and deliver. Ferruccio Furlanetto was Don Ruy Gómez de Silva and was rather wooden, Dmitri Hvorostovsky appeared supercilious as Don Carlo and I couldn’t decide whether that was his interpretation or just his own personality. Marcello Giordani who is something of the Met’s ‘house tenor’ was a very stoic Ernani and seemed to lack charisma. The up-and-coming Angela Meade (who was applauded before she sang a note) was a stately Elvira and – you read it here first – it cannot be too long before the image consultants get on to her to lose a little weight. Joyce DiDonato, the Live in HD Host, reminded us how Meade has been compared to the young Joan Sutherland but she looks remarkably like the young Rita Hunter and clearly – like her – will sing Wagner in years to come.

If you are going to sit through Ernani, you must at least have a cast as good as this to sing it. Vocally Furlanetto was the most convincing artist through his unremorseful, snarling Silva, and Hvorostovsky revelled in his trade-mark smooth legato as the self-satisfied sounding Don Carlo. Meade had a powerful agile voice but the mechanics involved in producing her bel canto are rather too evident in close-up, but with her wonderful breath control and seemingly infinite vocal resources she is undoubtedly an important name to look out for. As for the likeable Giordani in the title role, despite his secure clarion top notes and the overall reliability of his singing, there is something missing that leaves him well short of tenor superstar status, though I find difficulty analysing what this is.

The Met’s chorus sang out with their usual well-schooled sound and conductor Marco Armiliato seemed to do as well as one could expect with the rather straightforward and rampant Verdi score. Since he recently conducted a ‘record-breaking’ 6 out of 7 Met performances in one week it is not surprising that he seemed to want to get another one over and done with and the evening was much shorter than its advertised running time. While there never seemed to be a less than a perfect ensemble, many of the biggest moments seemed to gallop by. During the broadcast the off-stage band were seen a number of times and they played well, especially in the wedding number in Act IV that involves castanets.

During an interval interview Joyce DiDonato had asked John Sellars, the Met’s technical director, what was meant by this production being ‘dead’ and it is used because it was the last performance in the run and the set would be sent to storage. Despite the wonderful singing; dead should mean just that and the set should be consigned to the flames – or sent to a recycling plant – whichever is preferred?

Jim Pritchard

The Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD 2011-12 season continues as follows:

7 April: Massenet’s Manon

14 April: Verdi’s La traviata

The Met’s Live in HD 2012-13 season will feature twelve live transmissions, including seven new productions (two of which are Met premières).