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Giuseppe Verdi: Ernani
08 Mar 2006

VERDI: Ernani

Verdi’s smash hit of 1844 is a relative rarity these days. As Stefano Olcese notes in his booklet essay for a new Dynamic recording, the opera calls for daunting vocal display from tenor, soprano, baritone, and bass.

Giuseppe Verdi: Ernani

Marco Berti, Susan Neves, Carlo Guelfi, Orchestra e Coro del Teatro Regio di Parma, Antonello Allemandi (cond.)

Dynamic 496/1-2 [2CDs]

$37.49  Click to buy

If Il Trovatore famously “only” requires the four best singers in the world, Ernani substitutes a very dark bass for the later opera’s mezzo role (Silva for Azucena) and then can arguably make the same claim.

But the opera world will accept less than the best in a Trovatore cast in order to enjoy Verdi’s melodic gift at its romantic height. Ernani’s score cannot lay claim to the same wealth of immortal tunes, but Elvira’s “Ernani, involami” foreshadows the greatness to come, and the fresh, invigorating music retains great appeal.

Unfortunately, even more than Trovatore, as a story Ernani asks a modern audience to stretch its dramatic credulity two centuries back, to full-blooded Romantic melodrama. Narrow escapes, improbable disguises, conspiracies in subterranean crypts – all these and more sprinkle outrageous spices to a rich stew, which has as its main ingredient a rigid chivalric code of honor. In the overheated finale, that code requires the hero to kill himself on his wedding day. The aroma appeals but the stew may be hard to digest.

Staging Ernani must require, therefore, artistry of a high order that is not dependably lavished on rarer operas. But on a recording, the listener can ignore any dramatic indigestion and revel in the urgent passion of the music. The patient shopper can locate the RCA Price/Bergonzi set, the Pavarotti/Sutherland, or any number of live recordings on smaller labels.

Now Dynamic releases a live recording from May 2005, recorded at the Teatro Regio di Parma. The cast, though not exactly “star” material, features singers whose careers have progressed well. Taking a chauvinistic marker, the three leads (Berti, Neves, and Guelfi) have all sung at the Metropolitan Opera.

Under conductor Allemandi’s energetic baton, the prelude exudes the passion the opera requires, and the opening chorus rightfully earns an extended burst of applause from the Parma audience. Berti makes his entrance as Ernani, and expectations have to be adjusted. He certainly has talent; the middle range in particular has a pleasing rough-edged, masculine tone. But whenever he has to extend into the higher range, the tone falters and starts to spread. This effectively undermines the heroic nature of the character, and Ernani should be a voice that commands admiration, such as that of a Corelli or Del Monaco.

Neves has earned some very respectable notices for her Abigaille in Nabucco, and she too clearly sings with skill and commitment. Her big aria, however, simply lacks the charisma to make it the showpiece it can be. In ensembles, however, she seems to relax and let loose, often with exciting results.

As one older admirer of Elvira, Don Carlo, Carlo Guelfi manages to portray the self-centered desire of a powerful man, through his sometimes husky but well-controlled baritone. Giacomo Prestia sings Silva, the even older admirer of Elvira, and though his somewhat worn, harsh bass may serve the role of villain aptly, that makes it no more pleasant to listen to.

The photographs on the CD case and booklet reveal a very handsome, expensive-looking production. Dynamic has been releasing DVDs with greater frequency; it may well be that if this Ernani appears on DVD, the performance may make greater claims for success. Verdi and Piave’s impassioned creation (based on a Victor Hugo work) may not be a masterpiece on the order of Trovatore, but it has a vitality that excuses much of the melodramatic silliness of the plot. Thanks to Dynamic for giving the work some much needed fresh exposure.

Chris Mullins
Los Angeles Unified School District, Secondary Literacy

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