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Radvanovsky, Licitra

Salvatore Licitra

i n a n r E s Verdi’ Lyric Opera of Chicago 2009-2010 By John Rizzo Ernani (1844) is considered a “landmark” opera in the Verdi canon, and so it is. His fifth opera, composed in his self-described “galley years,” Ernani is musically and dramatically the most mature of his earliest works. It is performed today more than any of his initial nine operas with the possible exception of the ground-breaking Nabucco (1842) which, I suspect, is performed more out of sentiment than superior artistic brilliance. Besides being a model for some of Verdi’s later masterpieces, Ernani represents a genuine turning point in the composer’s long and distinguished career. But when Count Nani Mocenigo, President of Gran Teatro La Fenice, offered Verdi a commission to provide two operas for the 1843-44 Carnival season (I Lombardi [1843] and one new work), the young composer could not have foreseen the historic significance of his acceptance. For his part, Verdi expressed a certain apprehension about “tempting Providence” by composing a sixth consecutive opera for La Scala, despite the pleadings of Bartolomeo Merelli, Director of Italy’s most prominent theater. It is difficult, however, to believe that Verdi could be totally unaware of the prestige that would accrue to the composer who could score a triumph in Venice at the Fenice. For hundreds of years, Venice had been a worthy rival to Milan. With pride, citizens of the Serenissima could rightly claim that their city represented the longest lasting “republic” (or at least non-monarchy) in the history of the world. Venetians could also point to their city’s crucial contributions to opera history. In 1843 Milan might boast La Scala as the undisputed capital of Italian opera, but in 1637 the very first public opera house, the Teatro San Cassiano, opened in Venice, and the Teatro la Fenice (the Phoenix) had as illustrious a tradition as any theater in Italy. Here was where the three previous masters of Italian opera, Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti, had all been lionized or sumptuously feted for some of their greatest triumphs. And Verdi, whose arm would take very little twisting to continue to exploit the patriotic theme, which he and librettist Themistocle Solera did so skillfully in Milan with I Lombardi, was surely aware of how brightly the revolutionary fires burned against the Austrians in Venice. So Verdi figured that this was the right time and place for his next creation, although he certainly could not have predicted that he would go on to compose a total of five (and some of his best) operas for Venice. With a score that features a preference for vocal ensembles over solo arias and a forward-looking instrumental fabric, and a typically dramatic Victor Hugo subject with principal characters who are all psychologically torn between love and honor, Ernani obviously anticipates the musically masterful and quintessentially romantic Verdi tragedies of the future. But the relatively inexperienced composer was still in uncharted waters when it came to bringing his ideas to life on a venerable stage like the Fenice’s. Thank God, Verdi had the instincts of a genius! For example, once the subject had been decided upon, just settling on a cast mutually agreeable to both composer and management proved to be a tough battle, one in which Verdi ultimately prevailed, and one that had important implications for the future of operatic performance practice. Riding the crest of his newfound fame that had blossomed after the decisive triumphs at La Scala, Verdi felt himself in a strong enough position to stipulate certain conditions for his acceptance of the Fenice proposal. One of these was that he would have the final say on casting, so long as the singers were on the Fenice payroll for the Carnival season. For Ernani’s prima donna there was 30 AMICI/ Fall 09

no problem. The eminent soprano, Sofia Loewe, would portray Elvira. But the Fenice management also had a very strong contralto under contract, Carolina Vietti, who specialized in pants roles (a woman who regularly played male characters) and they wanted her to be the first Ernani. This was not a bizarre concept at this time. The public performance of women was still a spectacle that audiences could not seem to get enough of. Consequently, whereas in opera’s first two hundred years (and in the theater of Shakespeare and the Greeks), men played the parts of women, now, after the great revolutions of the late 18th century and the turbulent Napoleonic years, it was not uncommon for women to play the parts of men. Note that Bellini’s Romeo, in I Capuleti ed i Montecchi (1830), was scored for a woman. Verdi, however, was determined to preserve his opera’s dramatic integrity and insisted on a tenor playing Ernani. Fenice secretary Guglielmo Brenna sent an emissary to Milan to try and persuade Verdi to accept the en travesti concept, but the composer remained “a sworn foe to the idea of making a woman sing dressed up as a man.” Nevertheless, for one of the only times in his career, Verdi initially gave way on a philosophical point and agreed to score the title role of Ernani for Vietti. But then the police censors began sticking their noses into the negotiations, demanding things like the appropriate show of respect for the King (Carlo). Verdi offered to bend on some of the censorial concerns in return for scoring the parts as he wished. An agreement was reached, and the part of Ernani was assigned to tenor Carlo Guasco, who would also create the role of Foresto in Attila (1846). From this point on, with very few exceptions, Verdi and all other opera composers scored female roles for women and male roles for men. But of most significance in his composition of Ernani, is that on this occasion, Verdi first collaborated with poet Francesco Maria Piave, who would pen 10 libretti for the composer, more than any other writer. And these included verses for two of the most perfectly created works of art of all time, Rigoletto (1851) and La traviata (1853). Like so many other individuals fortunate enough to know Verdi personally, the affable and non-presumptuous Piave would have walked through fire for the composer and he is well known to have suffered many indignities while creating the texts of some of the Master’s most familiar works. With a penchant for perhaps overusing the classical or mythological allusion, Piave earned the nickname “Il grazioso” from a sarcastic Giuseppina Strepponi-Verdi, and has been the target of critics for generations as a poor Italian poet typical of opera librettists. It was Piave, however, whose first libretto was Ernani by the way, who composed his verses exactly as Verdi wanted, thus rightfully earning his well-deserved slice of immortality. Performances of Verdi’s Ernani at Lyric Opera this season: Tuesday October 27, 2009 7:30 PM Saturday October 31, 2009 7:30 PM Thursday November 5, 2009 2:00 PM Sunday November 8, 2009 2:00 PM Wednesday November 11, 2009 7:30 PM Saturday November 14, 2009 7:30 PM Tuesday November 17, 2009 7:30 PM Friday November 20, 2009 7:30 PM Monday November 23, 2009 7:30 PM

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Verdi's Ernani