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Giuseppe Verdis Ernani is a vibrant adaptation for the lyric stage of one of the most amboyant dramas by the French poet. Both the composer and his librettist have combined Hugos verbal eloquence with the right musical temperament. Perfect example of Grand opera with chorus, the magni cent Act III is above all the rst time Verdi draws the very precise contours of what is about to become a type of voice in itself: the Verdi-baritone. In Ernani he starts to focus as never before on the psychological side of his characters. All his operas after Ernani will follow the same path in his perpetual quest of the truth.
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I own two other performances of this opera on video, one conducted by James Levine and the other by Riccardo Muti. Both are excellent, but I’ve been waiting for a long time for a contemporary performance that could stand beside those others, as musically grand but also with exemplary sound and picture quality. Well, it’s finally here. Prior to this I was unfamiliar with Opera Monte Carlo, but I was very impressed with what I saw. They’ve assembled a fine cast of singers and a true believer of a conductor who understands early Verdi and put them together with a refreshingly traditional production. No Elvira walking around in leather miniskirt and fishnets brandishing a whip, or an Ernani who communicates with his fellow bandits via laptop and cellphone. It’s a prepossessing staging that employs an overhead mirror and warlike statuary and obscurant curtains and period-accurate costumes to good effect. The only weak point is the final act that looks rather cheap, even tacky, but given the overall quality of the production that’s easily forgiven.
The vocalists are uniformly excellent. The always watchable and listenable Ramon Vargas is our Ernani, and his timeworn tenor overcomes a few initial rough patches to rise to Verdian heights of passion, and puissance. This isn’t at all surprising since sincerity and ardor have always been this singer’s calling cards. Likewise, Svetla Vassilieva is noticeably (though not distractingly) tremulous early on, yet eases her way into a more fluid and full-bodied performance by the midway point of the first act. Both are committed singing actors with an onstage chemistry that makes their characters perfectly believable, in spite of the story’s flagrant absurdities. Yet as dynamic as their performances are, I was most impressed by the bass Alexander Vinogradov, as Silva, and especially the baritone Ludovic Tezier as the king and eventual Holy Roman Emperor Don Carlo, whose voice seems to be getting even more velvety and more beautiful over time. His is a name I’m likely to look for when considering future purchases, with the assurance that I almost certainly won’t be disappointed. The chorus is fine, raucous and revelrous when called upon - this is early Verdi after all - in other instances deeply concerned, always vital, delivering their contributions to this opera as well as any I’ve ever heard.
Daniele Callegari’s conducting is vigorous, usually fast-paced (appropriately), and if not for a couple of inexplicable cuts this might qualify as a next to ideal performance. I can live without the repeat of the tenor’s act one first scene cabaletta, but what’s the point in doing away with the reprise of the last section of the fourth act’s glorious trio? We’re talking about eliminating maybe twenty or thirty seconds from an opera that isn’t terribly long to begin with, and at that point in the performance, with only a few minutes to go before the curtain falls, I can’t imagine the singers were feeling protective of their stamina. Obviously this isn’t enough to depreciate the performance on the whole, and we’ve all had to live with the frustration of seeing our favorite operas vagariously edited now and then. Having endured Don Giovanni with the entire aria Mi tradi taken out, and on more than one occasion, I suppose maestro Callegari’s decisions, though questionable, aren’t the worst that could happen.
On the whole, this is the most fun I’ve had watching an opera on video in quite some time. Ernani, by design, isn’t a terribly thoughtful opera, in fact its ridiculous plot doesn’t hold up to close (or even faraway) scrutiny. What it is is rousing good entertainment full of fire-in-the-blood melodies, although to be fair it does deal with the powerful theme of forgiveness versus vengeance which carries over into several of the composer's later works. Part of what makes Verdi such a genius, especially during the earlier phases of his career, is his ability to be inspired by lukewarm libretti and from these theatrically faulty texts create great beauty, and uplift, and transfiguration, but especially his talent for translating human passions into music while maintaining an ongoing dramatic forward thrust. Ernani is one of those operas that hints at the future while reveling in the present, and in the right hands can stand with the composer’s more mature and most successful works. Consider these the right hands.