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.