Sublime and Ridiculous
ERNANI may be the dumbest opera ever to approach becoming standard repertoire. The fact that it doesn’t approach it any closer, despite a good deal of ravishing Verdi music, is probably because it is so dumb. Gods, heavens, demons, miscellaneous spirits, and anything else floating around—IT IS SO DUMB. I have it on CD, of course, I have pretty much everything Verdi ever wrote on CD, but I’ve never seen this one staged before.* I’m not sure this was a virginity worth losing. I am not the first person to point this out, but possibly its chief purpose in the Verdi compendium is to make the insane plot of IL TROVATORE look sensible and well put together.
Also, the tenor/hero in TROVATORE is a twit, but he’s not such a whinerpants. Ernani spends the entire opera moaning about what a hard life he’s had and begging people to kill him. Come on, de Silva, you old brute, do it now at the end of act one and get it over with. How did the wet, whinging Ernani, supposedly the brave daring leader of a brave daring band of bandits, meet the globally irresistible Elvira in the first place, let alone long enough for them to fall in love with each other (not that this usually takes more than an aria to accomplish in any opera)?
Anyway. Elvira is, for reasons unspecified, mewed up in de Silva’s castle, where he’s going to marry her by force. De Silva is old and he comes on and sings this self-pitying aria about how he wishes that the ardour of youth did not beat in his aged breast . . . but it does, so he’s going to marry this girl even though she wants no part of him. If this is the choice maybe I’ll take the whinerpants after all.
But there’s a third entrant to the Elvira stakes: Don Carlo, the frelling king of frelling Spain. Played by Dmitri Hvorostovksy mmmmmmmmm okay, did you say there are two other male principals? I seem to forget. But the king sneaks into de Silva’s castle—he what? The king what?—to try to persuade Elvira to run away with him** and at the point where things may be about to go badly wrong for Elvira because the king is not a graceful taker of the answer ‘no’ both the other blokes show up and start shouting at one another. Because this is all so plausible and well thought out.
But the really cute bit is the deal with the horn. In Act Two Elvira has decided, for more unspecified reasons, that Ernani is dead and has agreed to marry de Silva after all.*** Ernani then randomly shows up dressed as a pilgrim and asks for shelter. Guests are sacred to the de Silvas! says de Silva, and then finds out who it is. Cue gnashing of teeth. Then the frelling king shows up, demanding that brave daring bandit Ernani. Nothing to do with me, says de Silva. I shall search your castle, because I know he is here! says the king. A de Silva’s word, once given, even to a lying sneak of a fraudulent pilgrim, must be kept, says de Silva. Then I will TORTURE EVERYBODY, because I am the king, and a really bad loser! says the king. Go for it, says de Silva.
At this point Elvira rushes in and says no, no, no, Mr King, please don’t do that, all this testosterone is giving me a headache!
For you, anything, says the king. Come away, come away, you pretty thing, I am going to wrap you up in flowers and ::drools:: I am taking your fiancée hostage, okay? he says to de Silva. Whatever, says de Silva. Exeunt everyone but de Silva, who is standing around looking oppressed, and then Ernani bursts out from the hidden priest-hole equivalent and says, you mean you let the king take her AWAY? Don’t you know he is our RIVAL?
WHAT? says de Silva. —Yo, elderly moron guy, that would be why he was going on about how he was going to make her happy, you know? And all the pleasure that awaits her at his . . . ahem . . . court. Yes, that would be it: his court. Jeez. Maybe you’re a little hard of hearing? And a little forgetful? You were cross when you caught him in her bedroom in act one . . .
So now we have to form a brotherhood to kill the evil female-plot-device-stealing king! says Ernani. How do I know I can trust you? says de Silva. A little late to be thinking about that now, isn’t it? When you’ve just made the violent and unstable king really mad at you by defending me?† But listen, goes on Ernani, I’ll tell you what. You can trust me because I’m giving you my hunting horn. The moment I hear you blow it I will KILL MYSELF.††
We will pause here for you operatically inexperienced blog readers to absorb this concept.
You know how it ends. But it still takes a few avalanches of credibility to get there. Carlo—this is Charles V in the history books: it’s not a nice likeness—is hoping to get elected Holy Roman Emperor. He may or may not have been a very good king, but the startlingly large band of assassins de Silva and Ernani have brought together still seem to be founded on the idea that he stole someone’s girlfriend. It’s not any more doolally than the hunting horn business in the previous act. And then Carlo is elected emperor, by a council of evidently seriously underinformed Electors, and promptly does the miser-leans-against-wall-and-becomes-generous thing, pardons the entire band of assassins, and as they’re standing around gaping at one another, he pulls Elvira out of the scenery somewhere and hands her over to Ernani.
Um. I realise that in the context of what’s about to happen in the next scene, where Ernani is, of course, going to hear the damn horn, Carlo is supposedly giving Ernani and Elvira their happy ending and until de Silva does his Al Hirt thing it’s chirping birds and rose petals all the way. But we all saw the king in the first act. Is this a man who is going to have been coming round for a cup of tea in the afternoons and meekly continuing to put his suit forward? I don’t think so. I think he’s just got tired of Elvira a little sooner than anticipated. . . .
Anyway. It’s Ernani and Elvira’s wedding day. Chirping birds. Rose petals. And the distant sound of a hunting horn. And then de Silva comes around and gloats. And . . . after some final moaning about what a hard life he’s had (although in the circumstances I suppose you finally can’t blame him) Ernani kills himself.††† Usually Elvira merely faints. In this staging she snatches the knife away from her brand-new (dead) husband and offs herself as well. And in what I can’t help but think is an acknowledgement of the outstanding gobsmackingness of the whole shebang . . . there’s no blood. They die (singing) utterly unbesmirched by stage blood or believability.
PS: It is fabulously sung. And a lot of the music is finest kind. Ignore what the hell is going on and just suck it in. Anyone who had the sense to stay home and listen on the radio will have had a terrific time with it. Angela Meade. My new heroine. My golly can that woman sing. Big Verdi soprano voice: wow. And she’s got those soft floating high notes too, as well as all the power to knock you over. Dmitri, well, we know about me and Dmitri. The square-mouthed Marcello Giordani has the classic Verdi dramatic tenor voice—but he’s not enough of an actor to bring off the flaying absurdity that goes with all the gorgeous notes. Ferruccio Furlanetto as de Silva has an easier time: he’s got the voice, and his character is a total creepfest: all he has to do is slouch around looking grumpy, vain and evil, and sing. And the staging is fine: nothing too meretriciously in your face in the name of art and excitement. But oh, the plot. . . .
* * *
*First breathtakingly anti-relevant footnote: I’ve told you I’ve been prodding a couple of beginner books of Japanese kanji in a dubious and lightly hysterical manner. One of the first characters they all seem to give you is a blank square, which is the kanji for ‘mouth’. I think of mouths—I assume we’re talking about human mouths—as being more oval. This is known as falling at the first fence.^
ERNANI begins with a rousing chorus, while our hero, the tenor^^, broods backstage on an artfully ruined bit of masonry. At the end of the chorus he turns towards the audience and opens his mouth to sing . . . and his mouth is perfectly square. It’s about the squarest thing I’ve ever seen.
^ Although ‘sun’ is worse. It’s a rectangle with a line through it. Yes. That so looks like the sun to me. Not. And kanji started as pictographs? Sure they did. Drawn by aliens from another universe. Where the sun is rectangular and has a line through it and the females of the pictograph-writing species look like folding TV tray tables.
^^ The hero is always a tenor. Or anyway if there’s a tenor he’s the hero. And if several blokes all rush onstage and down to the front together then the short one is the tenor hero.
** I want to believe that the translation leaves something to be desired but I’m afraid it’s probably pitiably excellent. So Don Carlo is apparently offering Elvira either to marry her or to install her as his ‘favourite’ and I’m (again) thinking, what? Not that he doesn’t look like the worst husband material ever, but like yeah get set up as his mistress so he can throw you over after he gets bored with you six months from now. What a good idea.
Although six months of Dmitri . . . hmmm . . . But then I’m self-supporting. And I’m sure I could get a story out of it. But Hvorostovsky is alarmingly good at playing horny villains. He was the Count in TROVATORE.
*** Take the king.
† Boy ideas of honour. Spare me.
†† Boy ideas of honour. SPARE ME.
††† BOY IDEAS OF HONOUR. FRELLING SPARE ME.
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