This weekend, the Met presents Verdi's Ernani, on the radio and in HD showings. Ernani is not one of Verdi's best-known operas — its name is not quite as household as Rigoletto or Aida — yet unlike some of Verdi's early works, it's never fallen out of the active repertory. It even has the distinction of being the first opera to be recorded complete, in 1904.
It's an early work of Verdi's — only his fifth opera, in fact, at a time when composers in the Italian opera industry were expected to write several operas a year.
Its melodies are full of direct appeal, and Verdi makes frank use of the standard operatic vocabulary of his day: rousing choruses, arias that are lamenting, hopeful, or ardent, as required, and spirited cabalettas (concluding sections of a solo or duet).
The characters are ones that audiences will recognize instantly: the outcast hero, the suffering heroine, proud rulers who live by a code of honor.
It's the story of a woman pursued by three men. The beautiful Elvira is sought by Ernani, the bandit; Carlo, the King of Spain; and the implacable Silva, who insists on the letter of his bond, just as Ernani is about to raise the cup of happiness to his lips.
If that last sentence seemed a little over the top — well, such is the nature of romantic opera. It's sometimes been mocked--think of the treatment that the Marx Brothers give to Il Trovatore in A Night at the Opera. (In fact, Ernani can be seen as a kind of dry run for Il Trovatore.)
But Ernani has always had its admirers, including Walt Whitman and George Bernard Shaw. Both wrote on music, and saw Ernani as almost an archetype of opera. Shaw, reviewing Ernani, spoke of "the ultra-classical product of Romanticism, the grandiose Italian opera, of which the executive art consists in a splendid display of personal heroics, and the drama arises out of the simplest and most universal stimulants to them."
And Whitman could describe a performance in this way:
The orchestra is full... and at the signal of the leader they begin... It is the stormy music of Giuseppe Verdi; it is the noble opera of Ernani. With the rise of the curtain you are transported afar--such power has music... If you have the true musical feeling in you, from this night you date a new era in your development, and, for the first time, receive your ideas of what the divine art of music really is.
Tune in on Saturday, February 25 at noon to hear Angela Meade take center stage in Verdi's thrilling early gem. Marcello Giordani takes the role of her mismatched lover, and all-star Verdians Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Ferruccio Furlanetto round out the cast.