Giuseppe Verdi: Ernani
Of all Giuseppe Verdi’s early operas, Ernani stands out. As later in Rigoletto, the composer here takes a play by Victor Hugo as his starting point, a play that despite its overwound plot (or perhaps because of it) inspired him to the most exciting, spirited music. To be sure, given the immense vocal demands it makes, a successful performance of Ernani needs an exceptional quartet of singers and a brilliant conductor. But all these were present at the opening night of the 1998 production of Ernani at the Vienna State Opera. Seiji Ozawa, later to be appointed its Music Director, was conducting his first new production at the Opera. Under his baton, the orchestra of the Vienna State Opera played with a precision and impulsiveness that one finds all too rarely in this repertoire. Neil Shicoff was unparalleled in the title role. This tenor part could hardly be sung in a manner more individual, more authentic, or with greater brilliance and subtlety. The same could be said of Michèle Crider, who as Elvira on that opening night in Vienna achieved the well-nigh impossible feat of balancing vocal dexterity and dramatic effect. While they might have been unlucky in her love, the two rivals for her favour matched her vocal prowess. As the King (and soon-to-be Emperor), Carlos Alvarez sang his part with a fresh, full-sounding baritone that offered the greatest vocal elegance and sophistication. The merciless Silva, whose intransigence seals the opera’s unhappy end, was sung by Roberto Scandiuzzi with all the necessary gloom in his bass voice. They are all supported by the Chorus of the Vienna State Opera. These ideal conditions allowed the confrontations of the main characters and, above all, those grandiose ensembles and finales that are a particular delight in every Ernani performance to unfold to the greatest effect. It is incomprehensible that this work, which had enjoyed a long period of success in Vienna with more than 200 performances from 1844 to the 1920s, should have been seen so rarely on stage since the Second World War.