By Lynne Gray, PhD
Please note this can be seen at www.metopera.org
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Saturday, August 1
Starring Leona Mitchell, Luciano Pavarotti, Sherrill Milnes, and Ruggero Raimondi, conducted by James Levine. From December 17, 1983.
The second Ernani to be streamed by the Met is Pier Luigi Samaritani’s romantic production from 1983, which beautifully captured the sweep and passion of Verdi’s less well known, but still very engrossing opera. With James Levine’s conducting and an incredible superstar cast to see and hear, there is certainly a compelling case to be made for checking this one out. Luciano Pavarotti was definitely at his stunning best in the title role as the wronged nobleman (Don Giovanni of Aragon), who was forced to turn himself into a bandit (now called, Ernani). A warm and beautiful Leona Mitchell sang Elvira, the woman he loves. Elvira, however, is also being hotly pursued by two other men: King Don Carlo (Sherrill Milnes in one of his greatest roles) and her aging guardian, Don Ruy Gomez de Silva (a superb bad-guy, Ruggero Raimondi).
Verdi’s early masterpiece is actually based on the 1830 Victor Hugo play, Hernani, with an intricately complicated plot concerning a young noblewoman and the three men vying for her affections—her guardian, the King who will soon become Holy Roman Emperor, and an outlaw who is actually an overthrown nobleman. Although there is plenty of action to thicken the plot – and to try to keep track of if you so choose – it, of course, arises from the boiling passions and grudges among the four central characters – the opera is perhaps best appreciated as a feast of beautiful and passionate Italianate singing rather than a compelling drama. With virtuosic roles for a quartet of principals, the opera delivers one feat of heroic vocalism after another – and what cast could ever be more up to the challenge.
As we have seen in several other previous stories, the four acts of this opera have individual names to help orient us to the plot. Act I is called The Bandit and takes place in Aragon in 1519. Don Juan (Don Giovanni in Italian) of Aragon has lost his title and wealth during a civil war. Taking the name Ernani, he leads a band of outlaws in the mountains. He tells his men of his love for Elvira and his plan to rescue her from her impending forced marriage to her aging guardian, Silva – “Come rugiada al cespite d’ un appassito fiore” (Like dew on a withered flower).
The scene then changes to Elvira’s chamber in Silva’s castle. While she waits in her rooms for Ernani “Ernani!… Ernani, involami all’ abborrito amplesso” (Ernani, free me from his abhorrent embrace), she is first visited by the King of Spain, Don Carlo, in disguise (yep – same character we’ve seen in another Verdi opera, Don Carlo – but as a ghost). Don Carlo, it seems, is in love with Elvira and is attempting to abduct her. Just as she draws her hidden dagger to defend herself, Ernani bursts in. He is recognized as an outlaw by the King and they are about to duel over who will actually get to abduct Elvira when Silva also appears. Shocked to find not one, but two strange men in Elvira’s rooms he challenges them both at the same time! “Infelice!… e tuo credevi sì bel giglio immacolato!” (Unhappiness!… and you believe this beautiful, pure lily…) Fortunately for all, a messenger appears on scene just in time and reveals the King’s identity. The King, it seems, is more than happy to pardon Silva’s unknowing treason (whose support he needs if he is to be elected Holy Roman Emperor). However, he summarily banishes the angry Ernani, who leaves at Elvira’s pleading, vowing to return for her.
Act II is called, The Guest, and here is where this love ‘quadrangle’ begins to get complicated – if not downright unbelievable. Ernani has disguised himself as a pilgrim to try again to rescue Elvira from her now impending marriage to Silva. Entering Silva’s castle, the ‘pilgrim’ succeeds in tricking Silva into pledging to shelter him from his enemies for the night. Seeing Elvira in her wedding dress (she believes Ernani is dead), he follows her and unmasks himself, offering her his head – on which there is a sizeable reward – as a wedding present if she really means to marry Silva. Elvira swears to him she would rather die than marry anyone else and tells him she had planned to kill herself at the altar (Duet: “Ah, morir potessi adesso” (Ah, if I could die now…). Of course, at that moment Silva himself reappears, but he now wants to exact a greater revenge than just quickly taking the unarmed Ernani’s life. Silva agrees to keep his word and protect Ernani from the King in exchange for a marker to be collected later. As you might expect in a Verdi tragedy, Ernani has a sad penchant for making bad bargains.
Carlos arrives at Silva’s castle, looking for the bandit. Silva keeps his word and hides Ernani, but Carlos, when he is unable to find Ernani, takes Elvira as a hostage instead. When Silva releases Ernani and challenges him to the postponed duel, Ernani explains to Silva that Carlos took Elvira because he too wants her for himself. The two enemies must now unite (however temporarily) to free Elvira from the King. The gallant, if ridiculously rash, Ernani pledges his life once again to Silva and as a token of his faithfulness, gives Silva his hunting horn. If the horn is ever sounded, Ernani will take his own life.
Act III is The Clemency and takes place at Charlemagne’s tomb in Aachen where Carlos is waiting to hear whether he has been chosen as the next Holy Roman Emperor. Carlos resolves to change his life if he is crowned, “Oh, de’ verd’ anni miei” (Oh, the dreams and deceits of my youth). When he finds that he has been awarded the title, it should be no surprise that Ernani’s and Silva’s plot against him is soon uncovered, but at Elvira’s sincere pleading for them both, the new Emperor’s mood changes and he forgives them all, granting them clemency and pardons for the conspirators while placing Elvira’s hand in Ernani’s.
Sadly, however, that was not the last act of this opera and with another whole act to go, you can probably predict a rather dramatic death is coming. Act IV is called The Mask and takes place in Ernani’s castle in Zaragoza. The reunited couple is happily celebrating their marriage day when…. you probably guessed it – a hunting horn sounds. Ernani of course, knows what it means but Elvira does not. Silva arrives, horn in hand – and also a dagger – which he gives to Ernani. When Elvira is sent away, Ernani asks only for a few hours to “sip from the cup of love.” He is cursed as a coward by Silva who demands the life he was promised. As difficult as it may be for a modern audience to accept, being the proud and not to mention rash young man that he has already shown himself to be, Ernani dutifully stabs himself in the heart “Ferma crudele” (Cruel ending). Naturally, in a beautiful dying duet, he lies in Elvira’s arms, begging her to live on.
1. Luciano Pavarotti in the title role of Verdi’s “Ernani” at the Met, 1983. Photo Credit: Metropolitan Opera Archives.
2. Luciano Pavarotti in the title role and Leona Mitchell as Elvira in Verdi’s “Ernani” at the Met, 1983. Photo Credit: Metropolitan Opera Archives.
3. Sherrill Milnes as King Don Carlo in Verdi’s “Ernani” at the Met, 1983. Photo Credit: Metropolitan Opera Archives.
4. Ruggero Raimondi as Don Ruy Gomez de Silva in Verdi’s “Ernani” at the Met, 1983. Photo Credit: Metropolitan Opera Archives.
5. Leona Mitchell as Elvira in Verdi’s “Ernani” at the Met, 1983. Photo Credit: Metropolitan Opera Archives.