On Thursday evening, the audience at the Met Opera received a special treat - a major early work by Verdi conducted by James Levine and featuring the singing of the legendary Plácido Domingo.
Ernani, with a libretto by Francesco Maria Piave based on the 1830 play by Victor Hugo, was the composer's third successful opera following Nabucco and I Lombardi. What is most notable about its genesis was the total control the young composer displayed over every aspect of the project. He not only wrote the music, but also supervised Piave closely in his adaptation of Hugo's work. It was Verdi who had chosen the subject in the first place after having rejected Piave's original libretto, one based on another Hugo historical play, a romantic melodrama that dealt with the career of Cromwell. This was unusual at the time. The famous bel canto Italian composers, Rossini and Bellini, had not concerned themselves overmuch with the storyline but had instead concentrated on producing music for that which had been provided them. Of course, composers had always worked with closely with librettists - witness the collaboration of Mozart and Da Ponte - and requested such changes as they felt necessary, but none before had demanded such complete oversight of the entire production.
The source of Verdi's work had been carefully selected. The plot, which saw three rival suitors fighting for the hand of Elvira, could not help but be filled with drama and confrontation even if today its theatrics strike the listener as totally implausible. And the fact that there were three suitors gave Verdi a range of vocal parts as a tenor, baritone and bass were all played off against one another. In the end, Ernani was a much richer opera for this combination. Beyond that, the use of a Hugo drama as a source placed the work squarely in the Romantic tradition, and it thus became quite influential in determining the future course of Italian opera. The final result was that Ernani became a lasting success in the nineteenth century and Verdi's most often performed work prior to the premiere of Il Trovatore in 1853. It also confirmed Verdi's position as the foremost composer of Italian opera, a distinction he was to maintain until his death several decades later.
From the very opening, Ernani's music is dominated by forceful rhythms that sweep the story relentlessly forward. One can only imagine the effect it must have had on early Verdi audiences who had grown used to the precious lyricism of bel canto. It must have seemed as though a fresh wind were blowing through the staid Teatro la Fenice. This was something entirely different from the genteel repertoire that had preceded it for the past several decades. Verdi was as great a showman as a composer and knew better than anyone else at the time how to heighten the dramatic intensity when putting a work onstage. He credited this to his own experience as a theatergoer. As quoted in the Program Notes, he stated:
"I've been able to put my finger on so many works which wouldn't have failed if the pieces had been better laid out, the effects better calculated, the musical forms clearer, etc."
Aside from Plácido Domingo - who, although not truly a baritone, was brilliant and magisterial in the role of Don Carlo - there was a full roster of great singers at this performance. Francesco Meli, more often associated with the bel canto repertoire, gave an exciting performance as Ernani. Angela Meade as Elvira and Dmitry Belosselskiy as Silva were both excellent in demanding roles. James Levine, as usual, showed deep understanding of the score and elicited from the orchestra a stunning performance that brought the audience to its feet. The production itself, an old (1983) staging from the Met's golden days, was sumptuous and wonderful to watch.