Guelfi, Carlo


ErnaniGiuseppe Verdi - Ernani

Teatro Regio di Parma, 2005 | Antonello Allemandi, Pier’ Alli, Marco Berti, Carlo Guelfi, Giacomo Prestia, Susan Neves, Nicoletta Zanini, Samuele Simoncini, Alessandro Svab | C-Major

George Bernard Shaw may or may not have had Ernani in mind when he came up with the generic definition of an opera plot as being about a tenor and a soprano who want to make love but are prevented from doing so by a baritone, but Verdi’s opera matches this description remarkably closely. Based on Victor Hugo’s historical drama, ‘Hernani’, Verdi’s Ernani is very much a product of its time, seeped in arch-romantic sentiments of honour, nobility, love, duty, betrayal and revenge, and Verdi’s musical treatment of the subject can be seen as somewhat academic, adhering closely to the Italian operatic tradition of the time, writing for particular voices in certain roles. It’s how the voices are used in this work however that makes all the difference.

What distinguishes Ernani from other historical romantic dramas of this type, and provides a degree of variation from the GB Shaw template, is that there is not just a tenor and a baritone competing for the hand of the soprano in question, but Verdi also makes use of a bass as an extra cog to his musical wheel. What makes Verdi’s handling of the subject interesting in this early work of the composer however is not so much the apportioning of those characters to the conventional singing roles, but in how Verdi develops the musical expression of those types in a way that would determine and set archetypes that he would often come back to over the years, particularly in how he manages to brings them together into a single musical and dramatic unit.

Essentially then, for all the romantic exoticism of the Spanish setting, with Don Juan of Aragon forced into hiding and taking the disguise of the bandit Ernani, his romance with Elvira under threat not just from her impending marriage to Don Ruy Comez de Silva, but from a rivalry with king in waiting Don Carlo, Ernani fits very much into the mould of the by-the-numbers romantic melodrama. It would be certainly lacking in any kind of dramatic credibility that would engage a modern-day audience where it not for Verdi’s skilful writing for the voices. Working for the first time with the poet Francesco Maria Piave, Verdi taking the upper hand with a clear idea of how he wanted to express the drama, Ernani is consequently wonderfully structured and skillfully arranged, the scenes played out with musical consistency and fluidity that doesn’t call for the action to be halted in order for the singers to step forward and do their singing pieces.

Or at least, ideally, that’s how Ernani ought to be played. With the right kind of singers and direction, it shouldn’t be as dramatically rigid as it is presented in this 2005 production for the Teatro Regio di Parma, but unfortunately, neither the singers nor the direction are fully up to the task. Directed by Pier’ Alli, the set and costume designs are old-fashioned and period - which is fine and suits this particular work - but there’s no reason why it should also be presented in the old-fashioned ‘park and bark’ style, the singers all standing, looking out, gesturing and delivering the lines as if there were asides to the audience rather than directed towards the other characters in the drama. In some cases the drama can indeed to be rather expositional and declamatory, but through duets, trios and choral arrangements, and in the very tone and blending of the voices, Verdi strives to make it much more interpersonal - but in order to achieve that, you don’t just need stronger direction and some dramatic input from the cast, you also need good singers.

It’s for this reason that I used the term ‘park and bark’ above rather than ’stand and deliver’ to describe the performances, because, unfortunately, there’s more barking than nuanced or even accurate delivery of Verdi’s vocal writing, and the weakest elements are actually the roles where it really needs to be tighter and more expressive - Elvira and Ernani.  Marco Berti and Susan Neves both have their moments - Neves notably in the highly-charged third scene where she holds steady alongside the imposing Carlo of Carlo Guelfi and the grave intonations of Giacomo Prestia’s Silva, but elsewhere they are terribly uneven. Guelfi is undoubtedly the best there is here, bringing a real sense of the power, danger, nobility and clemency that his character proves to be capable of, but alone and under this stage direction, it’s never enough to convey the true worth of the arrangements.

The singing and the staging leave something to be desired, and unfortunately the musical presentation under Antonello Allemandi is similarly uneven. This is certainly disappointing and surprising, as the Allemandi and Alli team work much better together in the Teatro Regio di Parma recording of Oberto that is also available on Blu-ray as part of this collection. This isn’t entirely a bad performance of Ernani, just a rather uneven one that at its best never really rises above merely average. Ernani however, for all its flaws as one of Verdi’s earliest works, surely deserves more than that.

This recording of Ernani (previously released on DVD by Dynamic) is released here upgraded to HD in a Blu-ray release as part of the ‘Tutto Verdi’ series from C-Major, a collection that is made up of performances of all Verdi’s opera work recorded at the Teatro Regio di Parma. Some trailers for other works in the collection are included on the disc, as well as a visual introduction/synopsis for Ernani. The quality of the HD image is generally very good, although one or two scenes lack the same kind of detail that can be seen elsewhere and some of the camerawork is a little bit rough in places. There are no problems with the audio tracks, both the PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 sound clear and strong. There are however one or two curiosities in the English subtitles, but nothing significant. The Blu-ray is all-region, with subtitles in Italian, English, German, French, Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Japanese.

AidaGiuseppe Verdi - Aida

Metropolitan Opera, New York, 2009 | Daniele Gatti, Sonja Frisell, Roberto Scandiuzzi, Johan Botha, Dolora Zajick, Violeta Urmana, Stefan Kocán, Adam Laurence Herskowitz, Jennifer Check, Carlo Guelfi | Decca

Although there is an intimate and tragic love story at its heart, Aida is set against the exotic background of the Egypt of the Pharaohs, and is full of patriotic, nationalistic sentiments, as the Egyptian army prepare to go to war to fight off a revolt by the Ethiopians. It’s a perfect subject, in other words, for Verdi, and it was undoubtedly the nature of the storyline, much more than any commission for the new opera house in Cairo (which he repeatedly refused) or the grand occasion of the opening of the Suez Canal, that encouraged him to return to opera composition in 1871. This return would herald a new style of opera that we would see from Verdi in his final works, one that is mindful of the innovations introduced by Wagner, but which still retains elements here of bel canto in an opera that is filled with memorable arias and melodies. Despite its setting and the use of exotic Oriental melodies – which really see Verdi at his most inventive and original – Aida is very much an Italian opera, and one that is thoroughly and recognisably a true Verdi opera.

Considering its origins and its setting – whether it was composed for a grand occasion or not – Verdi’s Aida is appropriately stately in its expressions of nationalistic pride and identity, with extravagant marches, battle hymns, ceremonial processions and dances. There’s no point in doing Aida in a minimalist style, as Robert Wilson has done in the past (although it’s certainly interesting to see something different attempted) – this is an opera that just calls out for a grand scale production. If you haven’t got a stage the size of the Arena di Verona, and a director like Franco Zeffirelli to fill it, the nearest grand, traditionally staged Aida you are going to find is this Sonja Frisell production – now over twenty years old – for the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

It’s a big production in every respect – and yes, I include the size of the singers in this – with towering temples, the stage filled with chorus, troops, dancers and well-tanned, bare-chested slaves, even horses and chariots, all arranged in grand ceremonial processions and formations. It’s unfortunately a little too static – an impressive spectacle even if it is a little bit kitsch, but not much thought has been put into the interaction between the main players. They just walk on in most cases, sing their part, and walk back off again. But, this is what you expect of an Aida production – particularly a traditional one at the Met – and really, you’d feel somewhat short-changed if it didn’t have all the other bells and whistles (and trumpets) .

You won’t feel short-changed by the singers here either. Johan Botha is one of the finest tenors in the world, a great Wagnerian heldentenor, which serves him in good stead for this particular Verdi opera. I don’t know about his acting ability – there’s not much required here of Ramadès – but he has an ability to fill his roles with life, principally through the wonderful warmth of tone of his voice. Violeta Urmana is the Verdian soprano of choice at the moment, and she is fine singing the role of Aida, if again there are not any real acting demands placed on her. Dolora Zajick is an experienced Amneris and sings the role well, but does unfortunately look constipated when singing (sorry, but she does). The final duet notwithstanding, Act IV of Aida belongs to Amneris however, Verdi giving her character real depth and human passion, and Dolora Zajick launches into it with relish, making perhaps the strongest impression on the whole production, which is a little lacking in energy elsewhere.

Recorded live for worldwide broadcast in 2009 for the Met’s Live in HD programme, the production looks fantastic in High Definition, is colourful and well-lit. The audio mixes are in PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 and, allowing for one or two minor sound issues with the live mix which is a little bit echoing in places, they both sound fine, the surround in particular dispersing the choral singing well. Extras on the BD include edited-down interviews (I’d have been happy to listen to much more of this) conducted by Renée Fleming with the cast and extras.