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Love Versus Honour

Palau de les Arts Reina Sofía
06/07/2023 -  & June 10, 13, 16*, 18, 2023
Giuseppe Verdi: Ernani
Piero Pretti (Ernani), Franco Vassallo (Don Carlo), Angela Meade (Elvira), Evgeny Stavisky (Don Ruy Gomez de Silva), Laura Orueta (Giovanna), Matheus Pompeu (Don Ricardo), Javier Castaneda (Jago)
Cor de la Generalidad Valenciana, Francesc Perales (chorus master), Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana, Michele Spotti (conductor)
Andrea Bernard (stage director), Alberto Beltrame (sets), Elena Beccaro (costumes), Marco Alba (lighting)

(© Miguel Lorenzo & Mikel Ponce/Les Arts)

Ernani, Verdi’s fifth opera, is possibly the finest of his early period. More than his preceding operas, it marked a shift in Italian opera of the period. Unlike the bel canto operas of the time, where the libretto was of secondary importance, Verdi chose a successful play by a major playwright of the day. Bel canto opera was above all about beautiful voices and their prowess. But Verdi was convinced that a good libretto was essential in capturing the public’s attention in the “modern epoch.” People were better informed, and there was a marked aura of possibility in the air. After all, the French Revolution was the culmination of the Enlightenment, and the modern public of the mid‑nineteenth century was now a rational one, therefore improbable stories of Greek deities and monarchs of ancient times were less likely to work.

A large number of Verdi’s operas were based on plays by major playwrights: Shakespeare (Macbeth, Otello, Falstaff); Schiller (Giovanna d’Arco, Luisa Miller, I Masnadieri, Don Carlos); Gutiérrez (Il trovatore, Simon Boccanegra); Byron (Il corsaro, I due Foscari); Dumas (La traviata); Voltaire (Alzira); and Victor Hugo (Ernani, Rigoletto). Verdi firmly believed that a successful play had a good chance of becoming a successful opera.

While the notion of honour in Hugo’s Hernani, ou l’Honneur castillan may not be clear to a contemporary audience, it was still a notion aspired to at the time of the opera’s creation. In Act II, Elvira’s old relative and promised groom Don Ruy Gomez de Silva gives shelter to a pilgrim who is actually his rival Ernani in disguise. When Don Carlos, King of Spain, another rival for Elvira’s love, demands the bandit Ernani, Silva refuses out of adherence to the code of hospitality and honour. In return for having saved him, Ernani gives Silva his father’s horn and pledges that upon blowing that horn, his life is at Silva’s command. In Act III, when the conspirators’ plot against Don Carlos is foiled, the King demands the head of the noblemen and the release of the plebeians among the conspirators. Ernani reveals his noble descent and demands to die with the noblemen.

Fortunately, Don Carlos is transformed by the solemnity of the location (Charlemagne’s resting place), pardons Ernani and releases the captive Elvira. In Act IV, following Ernani and Elvira’s wedding, Silva blows the horn Ernani had given him for having saved his life and hands him a dagger ordering him to take his own life. The honourable Ernani obliges and stabs himself in the heart. Plenty of honour that may sound absurd today. Nonetheless, the opera still holds a contemporary audience’s interest and continues to thrill.

Ernani soon became Verdi’s most popular opera, until it was displaced by Il trovatore (1853). However, it faced hurdles at its inception: Victor Hugo’s opposition to the adaptation of his play, and the censor’s opposition to anything connected to Hugo, whom they deemed revolutionary. For some productions, the name of the title character was changed. In several cities, the opera’s title was altered to either Il proscritto or Elvira d’Aragona.

Stage director Andrea Bernard had some interesting ideas, though many seemed forced. Ernani was the son of a nobleman who fought the King of Spain and was killed and dispossessed by him. This is the reason Ernani became an outlaw. During the opera’s orchestral prelude, an impressively-produced video was shown. It showed the destruction and burning of a castle and a child witnessing his father’s burial. The child keeps his father’s horn as a reminder of the injustice against his family. This tragic event becomes a recurring leitmotif: the father’s grave remains throughout the opera’s four acts, which take place in different locations. Thus, it’s a figurative image rather than an actual grave. Likewise, a winged knight in armour, representing Destiny, appears during intensely dramatic moments. One appearance would have been enough, but many became tedious. However, there was nothing offensive in the production, except possibly the wedding ceremony ballet in Act IV where all the guests were dressed as parrots or some such fowl. Their white costumes contrasted with the more sombre ones of the previous three acts, but they were baggy and inelegant, removing any grace in the dance interlude. Alas, the symbolism of the parrots escaped me.

Elena Beccaro’s costumes were conventional for the period; unoriginal yet elegant. Alberto Beltrame’s movable papier mâché panels that formed much of the sets were functional and mostly appealing. In Act III, which takes place alongside Charlemagne’s tomb in Aix‑la‑Chapelle (Aachen) in Northwestern Germany, the sets were unimpressive. The buildings in the background looked like toy models. The much‑needed atmosphere of solemnity was nowhere to be found.

Happily, and in contrast to the modest staging and sets, the voices were fabulous: an ideal cast for an opera demanding four great singers. Indeed, Verdi’s break from Donizetti’s bel canto truly began with Ernani, where he imposed Meyerbeer’s model of four to six grand voices corresponding to the different vocal registers.

Italian tenor Piero Pretti had the right voice for the title role: a spinto lyric tenor with squillo and glamorous high notes. He is also handsome and moves well on stage. Thanks to his striking presence, he held the audience’s attention even during onstage distractions. His rendition of the opening aria, “Come rugiada al cespite” was exemplary. He was able to show the character’s heroic nature as well as his distress about Elvira’s impending wedding to the much older Silva.

American spinto soprano Angela Meade is a veteran Elvira, having first performed it at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 2008. Her voice is huge and her high notes impressive. Her opening aria, “Ernani, Ernani involami” brought the house down. Despite her large size, Meade moves well on stage and is a credible actress. However, the role of Elvira is a borderline bel canto one, coveted in fact by the great dramatic coloratura soprano Joan Sutherland in her twilight years. It demands a vocal agility that frankly isn’t Meade’s greatest strength.

Italian baritone Franco Vassallo was an impetuous Don Carlo, imposing and regal in his deportment. His Act III aria “Gran’ Dio... Oh, de’ miei verd’anni” was the musical highlight of the evening. He conveyed both disillusionment and regal solemnity. His powerful interpretation rendered his transformation from philanderer to mature monarch credible.

Russian bass Evgeny Stavisky was a dignified Silva. His deeply virile voice contrasted well with Vassallo’s baritone. Despite his vindictiveness, he was able to convey pathos. One still admired his dignity and felt compassion for this unloved old man. His Act IV aria “Che mai vegg’io Infelice! E tuo credevi...Infine che un brando vindice” was moving despite his vengefulness. Silva was probably Verdi’s prototype for two other great bass roles: Fiesco in Simon Boccanegra (1857) and Philippe in Don Carlos (1867), both regal yet disillusioned characters. Their respective arias, “Il lacerato spirito” and “Elle ne m’aime pas” were reminiscent of Silva’s aria.

A further reason for the triumphant success of the performance was the well‑rehearsed chorus and the brilliantly precise playing of the Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana. These players are expert Verdians, having performed almost all his operas. Young Italian conductor Michele Spotti impressed with his passionate control of the orchestra as well as his unfailing attention to the needs of the singers. These demanding roles were well‑served by those performing them; Verdi would be pleased.

Ossama el Naggar



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