on 16 September 2010
Studio production recorded in July 1967 at the RCA Italiana Studios in Rome and originally issued in Lp format in 1968.
Good 1960s analogue stereo. I assume that the digital remastering took place in mid-1990 although, true to form, RCA doesn't bother to say so.
Don Juan of Aragon, better known as Ernani, a bandit chief - Carlo Bergonzi (tenor)
Donna Elvira, betrothed to her uncle but in love with Ernani - Leontyne Price (soprano)
Don Carlo, i.e., Charles I of Spain and Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire - Mario Sereni (baritone)
Don Ruy Gomez de Silva, a grandee of Spain, uncle of Donna Elvira and her betrothed - Ezio Flagello (bass)
Don Riccardo, an esquire of the king - Fernando Iacopucci (tenor)
Iago, a squire of Silva - Hartje Mueller (bass)
Giovanna, Elvira's nurse - Julia Hamari (mezzo-soprano)
Thomas Schippers with the RCA Italiana Opera Orchestra and Chorus.
Libretto in Italian and English. Brief summary of the plot. Nothing on the performers and little more on the history of the opera. Track list with timings.
Disk 1 - Prelude, track 1; Act I, tracks 2-12; Act II, tracks 13-16; 67:42.
Disk 2 - Act II (continued), tracks 1-4; Act III, tracks 5-9; Act IV, tracks 10-11; 62:25.
When this recording was made in 1967, it was offered as complete. Subsequent scholarship has turned up a couple of short-lived additions made by Verdi at the request of particular performers for specific performances, most noticeably a piece of vocal display for the tenor near the end of the opera. Except for completists who simply must have everything, nothing significant is lost by their omission here. (If you absolutely crave the additional material, it is incorporated into the Bonynge-Pavarotti-Sutherland recording.)
Let me be absolutely clear on one thing from the very beginning, the story of "Ernani" is idiotic. For people in their right minds--a phrase that only vaguely relates to opera fans--the pleasures to be drawn from "Ernani" are predominantly musical ones. And it so happens that those musical pleasures are very substantial, indeed. You'll not find a subtle bar in the piece, nor a hint of an insight, but there is an almost endless flow of glorious, passionate, Italianate singing.
The risible plot involves a Spanish hidalgo's exaggerated sense of honor. That this super-honorable aristocrat has fallen on hard times and taken up the profession of bandit chief is perfectly consistent with the rest of the cockeyed plot. For reasons too lengthy and far too silly to go into here, the hidalgo has sworn to assassinate someone or die by his own hand when he hears the sound of a horn. Well, before you can say Jack Robinson, Ernani, for he is that honorable hidalgo, has not only neglected to assassinate anybody, he has made his peace with the intended victim, and he is about to marry the girl of his dreams. Before the marriage can be performed, however, Ernani's old co-conspirator and hated rival in love (don't ask) turns up and toots his horn. The honorable Ernani understands: it is his fatal destiny. He closes his ears to all pleas and forthwith fatally stabs himself, all to the considerable discomfort and dismay of his bride-to-be.
Despite all that, this fifth opera of Verdi's debuted at La Fenice in Venice on March 9, 1844 and became a tremendous, rip-roaring hit. Even now, with the right singers, "Ernani" can convert a jaded audience who collectively regard "Einstein on the Beach" and "St Francois d'Asisse" as the highest flowerings of operatic art into applauding, cheering, foot-stomping fans, shouting bravi enthusiastically as any hired claque.
With Bergonzi, Price, Sereni and Flagello, RCA assembled a cast from 1967's A-list of singers. For all intents and purposes, though, "Ernani" rises and falls on the merits of the tenor and the soprano. Among the stereo "Ernani's" buyers must choose between Schippers-Bergonzi-Price, Bonynge-Pavarotti-Sutherland (studio) and Muti-Domingo-Freni (live). The Pavarotti-Sutherland version was not issued until long after it was recorded. It has always been iffy--although it has accumulated some loyal fans.
Some regard Bergonzi, a polished and elegant singer, as ill-suited for the manifestly unpolished and inelegant role of Ernani. On the other hand, a reviewer in the good, grey English magazine The Gramophone stated, "Bergonzi is decidedly Domingo's superior here. His singing is, to my mind, the principal recommendation of the set".
Of Price, that reviewer wrote, "Leontyne Price has moments when she sounds (as she could be) like the greatest Verdi soprano of the age (the phrases where, forlornly, she asks Ernani for a smile, ''il riso del tuo volto'', provide an example); she is at least Mirella Freni's equal".
Maybe, maybe, I can't tell. I am unable to hear Price with any objectivity, because on the two occasions I saw her perform on stage she offered the most blatant displays of self-centered, ungenerous unprofessionalism that it has ever been my misfortune to see. (And, yes, I HAVE seen Pavarotti.) Now, it may be that I caught the only two blemishes on an otherwise unstained career, but I don't think so.
All that aside, I am still willing to take this performance as the best "Ernani" available in stereo, so, five stars.
A SUGGESTED ALTERNATIVE:
However, there is a better performance available on CD, in fact, a much better performance. It is an old recording, available from Opera d'Oro and elsewhere, in not much better than mediocre mono sound. It is conducted by Mitropoulos with a cast consisting of Del Monaco, Cerquetti, Bastianini and Christoff. Each of these is not only better in "Ernani," but much better than his or her rivals. Mitropoulos was a great conductor, but one who was shamefully under-recorded in opera. Neither Muti nor Schippers is in his league. The role of Ernani suited Del Monaco even better than his trademark Otello, for it translated all his faults into strengths. Cerquetti, whose stage career was cut tragically short, was a born Verdian and a true rival to Tebaldi. Bastianini and Christoff blow away the competition on all other "Ernanis."
Here is The Gramophone again: "Each of the four principals not only has a voice of essential power but each has Verdian style as part of their interpretative make-up. Furthermore they are led by the legendary Mitropoulos.... He easily encompasses the cut and thrust, the rudimentary fervour of one of Verdi's earliest successes, combining at once rude rhythms with lyrical breadth of phrase in supporting his admirable cast and firmly controlling the many ensembles, and his orchestra responds eagerly to his positive beat."
Yeah, believe it!