It’s difficult to understand why Verdi’s Ernani struggles to get performances. It hasn’t played at the Wiener Staatsoper since 2002 or at La Scala since 1983 and, mystifyingly, has never set an operatic foot on the Covent Garden stage. Until Jean-Louis Grinda’s production in 2014, Ernani hadn’t been performed at the Opéra Monte-Carlo since 1917 … and if I was feeling uncharitable I might suggest audiences won’t have spotted much difference. Cutting edge it is not.
The opera – Verdi’s fifth – is based on Victor Hugo’s play and tells the tale of a bandit in love with Elvira who, as fate would have it, is destined to be married to the elderly Don Ruy Gomez da Silva. Ernani plans to abduct her but is foiled by the king, Don Carlo, who – wouldn’t you know it – is also vying for Elvira’s hand. Conspirators, oaths of allegiance and an honour suicide are typical operatic ingredients thrown into the mix, along with a terrific score bursting with melody. Ernani is very much the blueprint for Il trovatore, while Carlo – who is elected Holy Roman Emperor Charles V during Act 3 – reappears two decades later in a monk’s habit in Verdi’s Schiller-inspired Don Carlos.
Watching it again on this Blu-ray confirms that Ernani fully deserves a place in the repertory, even if Grinda’s staging is conservative to the point of static. A giant angled mirror above the stage adds a few interesting perspectives, while the costumes are lavishly in period, but the direction is old-school park-and-bark. The dagger with which Elvira threatens the king looks about as dangerous as a butter knife and when Silva calls in Ernani’s pledge to do away with himself on hearing his horn call, it’s literally curtains for our bandit hero as a pair of star-spangled drapes draw slowly together.
The casting, in truth, is mixed. In his prime, Ramón Vargas had a beautiful, lyric tenor, but he’s past his best now, showing strain on high notes which are often flat. Svetla Vassilieva’s raw tone and hollow lower register sound like she’s sung too many Odabellas. Alexander Vinogradov’s Silva dons a woolly beard straight out of a hoary production of Nabucco, but his singing is far from woolly, a lovely, soft-grained bass, lacking some heft, but he makes a noble sound. But it’s the baritone who gets all the best tunes in Ernani and Ludovic Tézier’s Don Carlo is a class act; his bronze tone and aristocratic phrasing are breathtaking. Daniele Callegari leads a solid account, even if there are times when a little more impetus from the pit would have been welcome.