Music with Ease > 19th Century Italian Opera > Ernani (Verdi)
An Opera by Giuseppe Verdi
Opera, in four acts, by Verdi; words by Francesco Maria Piave, after Victor Hugos drama, "Hernani." Produced, Fenice Theatre, Venice, March 9, 1844; London, Her Majestys Theatre, March 8, 1845; New York, 1846, at the Astor Place Theatre. Patti, at the Academy of Music, Sembrich at the Metropolitan Opera House, have been notable interpreters of the role of Elvira.
DON CARLOS, King of Castile
DON RUY GOMEZ DI SILVA, Grandee of Spain
ERNANI, or JOHN OF ARAGON, a bandit chief
DON RICCARDO, esquire to the King
JAGO, esquire to SILVA
ELVIRA, kinswoman to SILVA
GIOVANNA, in ELVIRAs service
Mountaineers and bandits, followers of Silva, ladies of Elvira, followers of Don Carlos, electors and pages.
Time: Early sixteenth century.
John of Aragon has become a bandit. His father, the Duke of Segovia, had been slain by order of Don Carloss father. John, proscribed and pursued by the emissaries of the King, has taken refuge in the fastnesses of the mountains of Aragon, where, under the name of Ernani, he has become leader of a large band of rebel mountaineers. Ernani is in love with Donna Elvira, who, although she is about to be united to her relative, the aged Ruy Gomez di Silva, and grandee of Spain, is deeply enamoured of the handsome, chivalrous bandit chief.
Don Carlos, afterwards Emperor Charles V, also has fallen violently in love with Elvira. By watching her windows he has discovered that at dead of night a young cavalier (Ernani) gains admission to her apartments. He imitates her lover's signal, gains admission to her chamber, declares his passion. Being repulsed, he is about to drag her off by force, when a secret panel, opens, and he finds himself confronted by Ernani. In the midst of a violent scene Silva enters. To allay his jealousy and anger, naturally aroused by finding two men, apparently rival suitors, in the apartment of his affianced, the King, whom Silva has not recognized, reveals himself, and pretends to have come in disguise to consult him about his approaching election to the empire, and a conspiracy that is on foot against his life. Then the King, pointing to Ernani, says to Silva, "It doth please us that this, our follower, depart," thus insuring Ernanis temporary safety -- for a Spaniard does not hand an enemy over to the vengeance of another.
Believing a rumour that Ernani has been run down and killed by the Kings soldiers, Elvira at last consents to give her hand in marriage to Silva. On the eve of the wedding, however, Ernani, pursued by the King with a detachment of troops, seeks refuge in Silvas castle, in the disguise of a pilgrim. Although not known to Silva, he is, under Spanish tradition, his guest, and from that moment entitled to his protection.
Elvira enters in her bridal attire. Ernani is thus made aware that her nuptials with Don Silva are to be celebrated on the morrow. Tearing off his disguise, he reveals himself to Silva, and demands to be delivered up to the King, preferring death to life without Elvira. But true to his honour as a Spanish host, Silva refuses. Even his enemy, Ernani, is safe in his castle. Indeed he goes so far as to order his guards to man the towers and prepare to defend the castle, should the King seek forcible entry. He leaves the apartment to make sure his orders are being carried out. The lovers find themselves alone. When Silva returns they are in each others arms. But as the King is at the castle gates, he has no time to give vent to his wrath. He gives orders to admit the King and his men, bids Elvira retire, and hides Ernani in a secret cabinet. The King demands that Silva give up the bandit. The grandee proudly refuses. Ernani is his guest. The Kings wrath then turns against Silva. He demands the surrender of his sword and threatens him with death, when Elvira interposes. The King pardons Silva, but bears away Elvira as hostage for the loyalty of her kinsman.
The King has gone. From the wall Silva takes down two swords, releases his guest from his hiding-place, and bids him cross swords with him to the death. Ernani refuses. His host has just protected his life at the danger of his own. But, if Silva insists upon vengeance, let grandee and bandit first unite against the King, with whom the honour of Elvira is unsafe. Elvira rescued, Ernani will give himself up to Silva, to whom, handing him his hunting-horn, he avows himself ready to die, whenever a blast upon it shall be sounded from the lip of the implacable grandee. Silva, who has been in entire ignorance of the Kings passion for Elvira, grants the reprieve, and summons his men to horse.
He sets on foot a conspiracy against the King. A meeting of the conspirators is held in the Cathedral of Aix-la-Chapelle, in the vault, within which stands the tomb of Charlemagne. Here it is resolved to murder the King. A ballot decides who shall do the deed. Ernanis name is drawn.
The King, however, has received information of the time and place of this meeting. From the tomb he has been an unobserved witness of the meeting and purpose of the conspirators. Booming of cannon outside tells him of his choice as head of the Holy Roman Empire. Emerging from the tomb, he shows himself to the awed conspirators, who imagine they see Charlemagne issuing forth to combat them. At the same moment the doors open. The electors of the Empire enter to pay homage to Charles V.
"The herd to the dungeon, the nobles to the headsman," he commands.
Ernani advances, discovers himself as John of Aragon, and claims the right to die with the nobles -- "to fall, covered, before the King." But upon Elviras fervent plea, the King, now also Emperor, commences his reign with an act of grace. He pardons the conspirators, restores to Ernani his titles and estates, and unites him with Elvira.
Silva, thwarted in his desire to marry Elvira, waits until Ernani and Elvira, after their nuptials, are upon the terrace of Ernanis castle in Aragon. At their most blissful moment he sounds the fatal horn. Ernani, too chivalrous to evade his promise, stabs himself in the presence of the grim avenger and of Elvira who falls prostrate upon his lifeless body.
In the opera, this plot develops as follows:
Act I. Opens in the camp of the bandits in the mountains of Aragon. In the distance is seen the Moorish castle of Silva. The time is near sunset. Of Ernanis followers, some ar eating and drinking, or are at play, while others are arranging their weapons. They sing, "Allegri, beviamo" (Haste! Click we our glasses).
Ernani sings Elviras praise in the air, "Come rugiada al cespite" (Balmier than dew to drooping bud).
This expressive number is followed by one in faster time, "O tu, che Ialma adora" (O thou toward whom, adoring soul).
Enthusiastically volunteering to share any danger Ernani may incur in seeking to carry off Elvira, the bandits, with their chief at their head, go off in the direction of Silvas castle.
The scene changes to Elviras apartment in the castle. It is night. She is meditating upon Ernani. When she thinks of Silva, "the frozen, withered spectre," and contrasts with him Ernani, who "in her heart ever reigneth," she voices her thoughts in that famous air for sopranos, one of Verdis loveliest inspirations, "Ernani! involami" (Ernani! fly with me).
It ends with a brilliant cadenza, "Un Eden quegli antri a me" (An Eden that opens to me).
Young maidens bearing wedding gifts enter. They sing a chorus of congratulations. To this Elvira responds with a graceful air, the sentiment of which, however, is expressed as an aside, since it refers to her longing for her young, handsome and chivalrous lover. "Tutto sprezzo che dErnani" (Words that breathe thy name Ernani).
The young women go. Enter Don Carlos, the King. There is a colloquy, in which Elvira protests against his presence; and then a duet, which the King begins, "Da quel di che tho veduta" (From the day, when first thy beauty).
A secret panel opens. The King is confronted by Ernani, and by Elvira, who has snatched a dagger from his belt. She interposes between the two men. Silva enters. What he beholds draws from him the melancholy reflections "Infelice! e tu credevi" (Unhappy me! and I believed theee).
an exceptionally fine bass solo. He follows it with the vindictive "Infin, che un brando vindici" (In fine a swift, unerring blade.)
Men and women of the castle and Kings suite have come on. The monarch is recognized by Silva, who does him obeisance, and, at the Kings command, is obliged to let Ernani depart. An ensemble brings the act to a close.
Act II. Grand hall in Silvas castle. Doors lead to various apartments. Portraits of the Silva family, surmounted by ducal coronets and coats-of-arms, are hung on the walls. Near each portrait is a complete suit of equestrian armour, corresponding in period to that in which lived the ancestor represented in the portrait. A large table and a ducal chair of carved oak.
The persistent chorus of ladies, though doubtless aware that Elvira is not thrilled at the prospect of marriage with her "frosty" kinsman, and has consented to marry him only because she believe Ernani dead, enters and sings "Escultiamo!" (Exultation!), then pays tribute to the many virtues and graces of the bride.
To Silva, in the full costume of a Grandee of Spain, and seated in the ducal chair, is brought in Ernani, disguised as a monk. He is welcomed as a guest; but upon the appearance of Elvira in bridal array, throws of his disguise and offers his life, a sacrifice to Silvas vengeance, as the first gift for the wedding. Silva, however, learning that that he is pursued by the King, offers him the protection due a guest under the roof of a Spaniard.
"Ah, morir potessi adesso" (Ah, to die would be a blessing) is the impassioned duet sung by Elvira and Ernani, when Silva leaves them together.
Silva, even when he returns and discovers Elvira in Ernanis arms, will not break the law of Spanish hospitality, preferring to wreak vengeance in his own way. He therefore hides Ernani so securely that the Kings followers, after searching the castle are, obliged to report their complete failure to discover a trace of him. Chorus: "Fu esplorato del castello" (We have now explored the castle).
Then come the important episodes described -- the Kings demand for the surrender of Silvas sword and threat to execute him; Elviras interposition; and the Kings sinister action in carrying her off as a hostage, after he has sung the significant air, "Vieni meco, sol di rose" (Come with me, a brighter dawning waits for thee).
Ernanis handing of his hunting horn to Silva, and his arousal of the grandee to an understanding of the danger that threatens Elvira from the King, is followed by the finale, a spirited call to arms by Silva, Ernani, and chorus, "In arcione, in arcione, cavalieri!" (To horse, to horse, cavaliers!).
Silva and Ernani distribute weapons among the men, which they brandish as they rush from the hall.
Act III. The scene is a sepulchral vault, enclosing the tomb of Charlemagne in the Cathedral of Aix-la-Chapelle. The tomb is entered by a heavy door of bronze, upon which is carved in large characters the word "Charlemagne." Steps lead to the great door of the vault. Other and smaller tombs are seen and other doors that give on other passageways. Two lamps, suspended from the roof, shed a faint light.
It is into this sombre but grandiose place the King has come in order to overhear, from within the tomb of his greatest ancestor, the plotting of the conspirators. His soliloquy, "Oh, de verd anni miei" (Oh, for my youthful years once more), derives impressiveness both from the solemnity of the situation and the musics flowing measure.
The principal detail in the meeting of the conspirators is their chorus, "Si ridesti il Leon di Castiglia" (Let the lion awake in Castilia. Dramatically effective, too, in the midst of the plotting, is the sudden booming of distant cannon. It startles the conspirators. Cannon boom again. The bronze door of the tomb swings open.
Then the King presents himself at the entrance of the tomb. Three times he strikes the door of bronze with the hilt of his dagger. The principal entrance to the vault opens. To the sound of trumpets six Electors enter, dressed in cloth of gold. They are followed by pages carrying, upon velvet cushion, the sceptre, crown, and other imperial insignia. Courtiers surround the Emperor. Elvira approaches. The banners of the Empire are displayed. Many torches borne by soldiers illuminate the scene. The act closes with the pardon granted by the King, and the stirring finale, "Oh, sommo Carlo!" (Charlemagne!)
Act IV., on the terrace of Ernanis castle, is brief and there is nothing to add to what has been said of its action. Ernani asks Silva to spare him till his lips have tasted the chalice filled by love. He recounts his sad life: "Solingo, errante misero" (To linger in exiled misery).
Silvas grim reply is to offer him his choice between a cup of poison and a dagger. He takes the latter. "Ferma, crudele, estinguere" (Stay thee, my lord, for at least) cries Elvira, wishing to share his fate. In the end there is left only the implacable avenger, to gloat over Ernani, dead, and Elvira prostrate upon his form.
"Ernani," brought out in 1844, is the earliest work by Verdi that maintains a foothold in the modern repertoire, though by no means a very firm one. And yet "Ernani" is in many respects a fine opera. One wonders why it has not lasted better. Hanslick, the Viennese critic, made a discriminating criticism upon it. He pointed out that whereas in Victor Hugos drama the mournful blast upon the hunting horn, when heard in the last act, thrills the listener with tragic forebodings, in the opera, after listening to solos, choruses, and a full orchestra all the evening, the audience is but little impressed by the sounding of a note upon a single instrument. That comment, however, presupposes considerable subtlety, so far undiscovered, on the part of operatic audiences.
The fact is, that since 1844 the whirligig of time has made one -- two -- three -- perhaps even four revolutions, and with each revolution the public taste that prevailed, when the first audience that heard the work in the Teatro Fenice, went wild over "Ernani Involami" and "Sommo Carlo," has become more remote and undergone more and more changes. To turn back operatic time in its flight requires in the case of "Ernani," a soprano of unusual voice and personality for Elvira, a tenor of the same qualities for the picturesque rôle of Ernani, a fine baritone for Don Carlos, and a sonorous basso, who doesnt look too much like a meal bag, for Don Ruy Gomez di Silva, Grandee of Spain.
Early in its career the opera experienced various vicissitudes. The conspiracy scene had to be toned down for political reasons before the production of the work was permitted. Even then the chorus, "Let the lion awake in Castilia," caused a political demonstration. In Paris, Victor Hugo, as author of the drama on which the libretto is based, raised objections to its representation, and it was produced in the French capital as "Il Proscritto" (The Proscribed) with the characters changed to Italians. Victor Hugos "Hernani" was a famous play in Sarah Bernhardts repertoire during her early engagements in this country. Her Doña Sol (Elvira in the opera) was one of her finest achievements. On seeing the play, with her in it, I put to test Hanslicks theory. The horn was thrilling in the play. It certainly is less so in the opera.