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The Splendid and the Silly

New York
Metropolitan Opera House
03/17/2008 -  and March 21, 26, 29, April 2, 5, 10
Giuseppe Verdi : Ernani
Marcello Giordani (Ernani), Sondra Radvanovsky (Elvira), Thomas Hampson (Don Carlo), Ferrrucio Furlanetto (Don Guy Gomez de Silva), Wendy White (Giovanna), Keith Miller (Jiago), Ryan Smith (Don Ricardo).
Metropolitan Opera Chorus, Don Palumbo (Director), Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Roberto Abbado (Conductor)
Staged by Peter McClintock, Peter J. Hall (costume designer), Gil Wechsler (lighting designer), Pier-Luigi Samaritani (production and set designer)

Ernani should be one of the most exciting operas in the repertory, and the Metropolitan Opera production had the voices to validate that. But the opera is rarely played and, again as shown at the Met last night, the reason is that Ernani is a very silly opera.

Yes, the platitude is that opera by definition is absurd, since nobody sings when they should talk. But this is a fatuous argument, since the great operas, from Monteverdi to Glass and beyond, have stories which have cohesive drama, interesting (if sometimes irrational) characters, and the emotions which make singing inevitable.

But Ernani, based on a Victor Hugo drama, has little of the above. It begins with a scene of banditos who sing pillage and vengeance with all the emotion of the Smurfs; it ends with a very preventable suicide, and in the meantime, the four protagonists speak of honor, honor and honor, while pulling out their swords and daggers at even the intimation of a sneer or a trill.

Still, with enough propulsion, the sneers and swordplay are enough to give the stage enough interest—as well as a few near-thrilling arias. Its main asset, though, is that even the young Verdi—for this was his fifth opera—has endless arias and choruses and soliloquies. And the right singers—a Pavarotti, a Siepi, a Domingo, a Milanov—can actually pull it off.

The Met production started really badly with an announcement that Sondra Radvanovsky, the evening’s Elvira, was suffering from the flu (Chorus of Audience: “Ohhhh”), but that she would sing anyhow and begs for our understanding (Chorus of Audience: “Ahhh”).

Ms. Radvanovsky hardly needed that notice. While her first notes, the cabaletta “Ernani, involami”, is the most difficult in the whole opera, she came out wonderfully. At times her top notes were forced, and her low notes—for Verdi tortures his soprano with two-and-a-half octaves before they even show who they are—was inaudible. But she not only improved throughout the opera, but in the one duet with her lover, she seemed faultless.

But I was anticipating even more our Ernani of the night, Marcello Giordani. He had been so splendid as Des Grieux in Manon Lescaut earlier this year, that I thought this, with more thrilling arias, could only be better. But he started off with two first-scene arias with a shaky voice and lack of any kind of conviction. It had to go uphill from here.

Which it did. Not only did Giordano revive his voice, but he improved with each aria, duet or grand concertato ensemble. Yet, something was wrong, and it wasn’t Giordano’s fault at all. Des grieux is such a complicated character that one is actually concerned with his actions. Ernani, alas, gives Robin Hood a Goethe-like complexity in comparison. One doesn’t care about his longings. And finally, when he commits suicide for no particular reason except to please an old fogy who he and his girlfriend both despise… Well, one doesn’t care.

And now to the two stars. One expected that great veteran, Thomas Hampson to be wonderful as King Carlos. But he outdid himself. It is not a great role, but one set piece alone, “Oh, de’ verd’anni miei”, was sung like a Shakespearean soliloquy. And his last notes, floating down, were incomparable. He looked the regal part and acted just as regally.

The surprise was Ferrucio Furlanetto, as Silva. It is perhaps the only multi-dimensional part—part old man, part thwarted lover, part revolutionary, part royalty, part vengeful mover—and Furlanetto was complete in every respect. It was difficult to dislike a man whose "Infelice! E tu credevi” was so painful and so real.

As usual, the chorus under the great Donald Palumbo was faultless as well, though one missed the emotional pangs of their patriotic Act III anthem which moved so many Italians under the yoke of the hated Austrians in 1844. Perhaps because this scene, as well as the complete Acts 2-4, were played in the usual Metropolitan Opera darkness. I didn’t mind the same staircase being used for palace, tomb, mountain path and castle terrace. But where lights should blazon (a few flambeaux, perhaps?), the darkness didn’t allow the 16th Century Spanish splendor to radiate.

One exception was the second scene of Act I. Elvira’s set could have been painted and designed by Velasquez. The sharp reds behind her bed, the three gorgeous chandeliers, the great white curtains peacefully blowing. This was Renaissance grandeur. And in the finale of the scene, with all four major voices and chorus singing their hearts out, it made even this easy-to-parody opera into something approaching the grandest Verdi.

Harry Rolnick



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