Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)
Ernani (1844)
Ernani: Francesco Meli (tenor); Carlo: Roberto Frontali (baritone); Silva: Vitalij Kowaljow (bass); Elvira: Maria José Siri (soprano)
Giovanna: Xenia Tziouvaras (mezzo-soprano); Riccardo: Joseph Dahdah (tenor); Jago: Davide Piva (bass)
Coro e Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino/James Conlon
rec. live, 10 November 2022, Sala Zubin Mehta, Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Florence, Italy
Italian libretto with English translation is available online.
Reviewed as download from press review
Naxos 8.660534-35 [2 CDs: 126]

After Verdi’s first two tentative efforts with Oberto (1839) and the comedy flop Un giorno di regno (1840), his breakthrough came with the patriotic Nabucco;the likewise patriotic I Lombardi cemented his reputation as the leading Italian opera composer. He had some problems finding a suitable subject for his next project but finally decided on Victor Hugo’s box-office success Hernani from 1830, which Francesco Maria Piave transformed into an opera libretto – successfully, as it turned out. After the premiere on 9 March 1844 at La Fenice in Venice, it was to become his most popular opera for the next 18 years, until Il trovatore superseded it. It is easy to understand its popularity. The drama is full of possibilities for a composer with such an ear for intense scenes and the score is teeming with hit numbers. Each of the four main characters has a great aria, there are several attractive ensembles, and with groups of bandits and soldiers invading the stage on several occasions, choral enthusiasts get their fill. Caruso reportedly said that Trovatore was a surefire winner, provided one had the four greatest singers in the world on hand. This could also be a winning recipe for Ernani. Some 35 years ago, EMI mustered a mouthwatering quartet at La Scala with Mirella Freni, Placido Domingo, Renato Bruson and Nicolai Ghiaurov in the limelight and Riccardo Muti in the pit. In the last resort, they didn’t quite , but it is still the best effort of the last fifty years. We have to go even further back, to the second half of the 1960s to find my preferred recording, an RCA-set conducted by Thomas Schippers and with Leontyne Price, Carlo Bergonzi, Mario Sereni and Ezio Flagello as soloists. The last-named isn’t the most expressive Silva one could imagine but he is still fully acceptable. There is a Hungaroton recording under Verdi expert Lamberto Gardelli with Giorgio Lamberti and Sylvia Sass in the cast list that I haven’t heard, but besides that, the competition among studio recordings isn’t too strong. (Editorial note: see also Ralph Moore’s survey of Verdi’s early operas for further discussion of the live and stereo recordings available.)

Which naturally brings us to the present recording. It was set down on 10 November 2022 at a live performance under American conductor James Conlon in the Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, one of the great opera institutions in Italy, although a younger organisation than the Rome Opera, La Scala, Milan, La Fenice, Venice (where Ernani premiered) and San Carlo in Naples, Maggio Musicale was still founded 90 years ago. Conlon is probably better known as a symphonic conductor, but he is music director of the LA Opera and has conducted more than 270 performances at the MET, so he knows the business. In my view, this is a wholly idiomatic reading of the score; no quirky tempos or other eccentricities and the playing of the orchestra is first class. The male voices in the chorus are also excellent – as are the female voices, but they are heard on their own only in a short Ladies’ chorus in the first act. 

So far so good, then, but what about the solo singing? There are several fairly well-known names here in the central roles, but do they live up to the epithet “best singers in the world”? No. Let’s get it over quickly: as so often these days we have here four voices with various degrees of disturbing vibrato. Ernani is sung by Francesco Meli, who sang a very good Elvino in a recording of Bellini’s La sonnambula with Natalie Dessay in the title role, which I reviewed 15 years ago. Then I thought he was an excellent tenore di grazia in the Alfredo Kraus mould. Now he has developed a distinct wobble, and the tone is more a tenore robusto and at forte he sounds seriously strained It should be said though that he is very careful over nuances. There he has retained something of the elegance and, actually, beauty I remember from La sonnambula. His beloved Elvira is sung by Maria José Siri, Uruguayan born of Italian origin. She has had a rapid career since her breakthrough as Madama Butterfly at La Scala in 2016, but here, six years later she has a pronounced vibrato, and the tone is shrill and unattractive. On the credit side is her coloratura technique, which allows her to indulge in the florid singing of the cabaletta in the first act with aplomb. Carlo is sung by veteran baritone Roberto Frontali, who has been in the forefront in the big houses since the early 1990s. Alas, his voice has lost its lustre, and he is sorely strained. The fourth of the main characters, Silva, is definitely an elderly man, and thus far Vitalij Kowaljow’s shaky and strained bass is in line with the requirements. Moreover he delivers a firm and resounding low final note in his big aria Infelice!, which secures him a Bravo! from the audience – the only one as far as I could hear. 

If all this sounds depressing, I’ll also say that all the singers are deeply inside their roles and act convincingly, and I’m certain that the audience had a great evening. The problem is that the sound recording cannot register the visual aspects and the atmosphere. Fortunately this performance is available as DVD and Blu-ray on Dynamic and I advise readers to try those instead. Those who prefer a CD recording will be better served by the RCA recording with Schippers (now on Sony) or the EMI with Muti (now on Warner).

Göran Forsling

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