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Ionarts at Large: Ernani at the Met

Thomas Hampson (Don Carlo) and Sondra Radvanovsky (Elvira) in Ernani,
Metropolitan Opera, 2008, photo by Marty Sohl
My latest trip to New York ended with a performance at the Metropolitan Opera, the first production of Giuseppe Verdi's Ernani mounted by the house since 1985. It is unlikely to be on many people's lists of favorite operas, only Verdi's fifth attempt (premiered March 9, 1844, at La Fenice), almost a decade before the composer knew enough and could demand enough to produce the Big Three of the early 1850s (Il Trovatore, Rigoletto, and La Traviata). Much of the work's weakness is due to the ridiculous story, but we cannot blame everything on the libretto by Francesco Maria Piave. In many ways, the opera is an improvement on its source text, Hernani (1830), a convoluted play by Victor Hugo that caused quite a stir at its premiere.

Other Reviews:

Martin Bernheimer, Virus season at the Met (Financial Times, March 20)

Bernard Holland, From the Attic, a Verdi Craves Attention (New York Times, March 19)

Jay Nordlinger, Verdi, Strong & Steady (New York Sun, March 19)

Harry Rolnick, The Splendid and the Silly (ConcertoNet, March 19)
The confusion is caused by the fact that everyone in the play wants to marry the prima donna, which is just the way that sopranos like things. Elvira is betrothed to her older cousin, Silva, but is in love with Ernani, the disgraced nobleman turned bandit. To make things more confusing, the King of Spain, Don Carlo, tries to steal Elvira away, at the same time as he is trying to get himself elected as Holy Roman Emperor. (One cannot help picturing the Democratic convention playing out like this, with shadowy conspiracies and plotted assassinations.) Silva and Ernani make an uneasy truce, agreeing to work together to save Elvira and get revenge on Don Carlo. Silva saves Ernani's life, accepting the latter's oath that his life will be forfeit at a later date. Don Carlo, elected Emperor, renounces his claim on Elvira, pardons Ernani, and orders that they be married. The tragic ending is ensured, however, as Silva appears, blowing the horn that is the sign of Ernani's pledge, and Ernani stabs himself. (He needs to get himself a better lawyer.) It could be much more of a bloodbath: in the Hugo play, Hernani and Doña Sol (Elvira) both drink poison, and Silva, in grief, subsequently kills himself.

The production is a revival of Pier-Luigi Samaritani's staging from 1983, and it remains overblown, fluffy, and dated. Huge paintings, billowing curtains, enormous towers, vast moonscapes were little more than stage space-filling backdrop for the plain staging by Peter McClintock. If poor Sondra Radvanovsky had to sing plaintively on her knees one more time, often perched precariously on oversized stairs, she was going to need physical therapy. The costumes by Peter J. Hall were handsome enough, with additional credit going to various designers for the multiplicity of hats and furs. Conductor Roberto Abbado did as well as one could expect with the perfunctory overture, which is over before much of it registers at all on the ear. He is not as authoritative a presence on the podium, and the orchestra did not always sound that attentive to him. When the singers got ahead of the beat, as happened more than once, he was efficient at realigning the ensemble. The on-stage banda played well, especially in the wedding number with castanets in Act IV.

Marcello Giordani (Ernani) and Sondra Radvanovsky (Elvira) in Ernani,
Metropolitan Opera, 2008, photo by Suzanne DeChillo
After all of the casting drama with the Met's Tristan, American soprano Sondra Radvanovsky also fell ill, struggling through the opening night and then suddenly replaced by newcomer Angela Meade at the second performance. Radvanovsky was back in the saddle on Wednesday night, a pleasing stage presence and large, solid voice, shading just a scintilla below the pitch because of its weightiness. The omnipresent Marcello Giordani, who recently described himself as the Met's "house tenor," takes on his nth role as Ernani. His voice had ring and brilliance, and he cut a dashing figure as the bandit hero, but one cannot help but notice a certain superstar quality missing from his portfolio. At the same time, it is a welcome relief to watch a lead singer distinguished by his sense of modesty. Ferruccio Furlanetto stole the show with his snarling, resonant Silva. That world-class performance was matched, somewhat less stormily, by Thomas Hampson, who was a patrician, supercilious Don Carlo. If you are going to sit through Ernani, you should at least have a cast this good to sing it.

This opera will be repeated at the matinee performance today (March 29, 1:30 pm), broadcast live on the Met radio broadcast, as well as on April 2, 5, and 10.

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