This production of Verdi's best early opera, Ernani, opened the La Scala season in 1982, and much of it is thrilling. Muti drives too hard at times, but rubato had entered his vocabulary by then, and the absence of subtlety isn't such a great loss in a score that's so visceral and propulsive. Ernani could be a singing contest, so evenly divided are the arias and ensembles. In a live recording such as this, one can't expect perfection -- or anything close -- but the four principals, all international stars, throw themselves into their roles with abandon. No wonder critics at the time called this the best Verdi singing in twenty years.
All of that is to the good, as is the recorded sound (stage and audience noises are minimal); orchetral discipline, while not on the level of the Met orchestra, is fine. Muti is nothing if not a disciplinarian. But there are some undeniable flaws, mostly to do with age. Bass Nicolai Ghiaurov as Don Carlo was a decade past his prime, rusty, woolly, and wobbly of voice -- not a pleasure to listen to despite his commanding dramatic presene. His wife in real life, the great Mirella Freni, was in the middle of her misbegotten crusade to sound twice as large as her voice really was, and she makes a hash of Donna Elvira's signature aria, 'Ernani, Ernani,' in Act I -- Leontyne Price's famous RCA version will never be effaced. Elsewhere, Freni sings with commitment and passion. As Don Carlo, Renato Bruson was widely praised for his musicianship, but I can't hear why: he is monotonously loud and unvarying in tone, and for me personally, his voice is intrinsically dry and unpleasant.
Which leaves Domingo in the title role of the bandit-nobleman, and he has a triumph. The mark of a great singer is attention to detail in live performances, where the temptation is to shout and strut. Domingo's singing is a model of vibrancy, excitement, and musical finesse. The Gramophone called this his best recording to date, and it's hard to disagree. In all, there is no ideal recording of Ernani, so unless you are fanatical enough to buy three different versions to hear Pavarotti, Sutherland, Price, Bergonzi, and the singers here, this riveting live reading serves well as a one-and-only.