Buenos Aires Lírica presented Verdi´s "Ernani" in 2006 and it was an excellent idea, for it is one of the best of Verdi´s First Period operas, and the Colón incredibly presented it only in 1965. Ten years later the Colón seems uninterested to program it, so it is quite justified to bring it back.
The 2006 occasion had been convincing in two key roles: Gustavo López Manzitti as a stalwart Ernani and Omar Carrión as a noble Carlo. Svetlana Volosenko was a good Elvira and Homero Pérez-Miranda a dramatic though rather woolly Silva. The sure hands of Carlos Vieu led the orchestra and Mario Perusso did an acceptable staging.
This time the strongest link in what may be called a Mercosur cast was the powerful Brazilian bass Sávio Sperandio and the weakest the Platense Lisandro Guinis as Carlo: he lacks presence and a fluid vocal line. Elvira was interpreted by the Paraguayan soprano Monserrat Maldonado with a sense of drama though little refinement and Ernani by the Uruguayan Nazareth Aufe, expressive and correct; however, he needs more metal in the timbre.
Juan Casasbellas was the very musical conductor, and the American Crystal Manich did the traditional staging, blessedly not changed to the present century but according to the libretto, placed in 1519-20. The stage designs of Noelia González Svoboda were good in the initial two acts but the chapel is poor, and the last act isn´t "a terrace"; the use of the same woody drop of the First Tableau was a mistake. Good costumes by María Emilia Tambutti and adequate lighting (Rubén Conde).
In my early teens I read in French Victor Hugo´s "Hernani" along with its famous Prologue, and I understood why it provoked a scandal at the time of its première in 1830. As Claudio Ratier writes in his excellent comments (I wish the Colón were as thorough as he is) it is "the banner of French Romanticism, a proclamation in defense of freedom".
Hugo´s theatre has long been considered old hat, but his intense belief in values that are now forgotten appealed to me, and they still do. And they persist in the libretto of Francesco Maria Piave for Verdi, although for some reason Hugo didn´t like it.
Later in my teens I had two experiences that convinced me of the quality of Verdi´s opera. One was the Cetra recording, with the magisterial Carlo of Giuseppe Taddei. The other was the viewing of "Ernani" at the beautiful old Met ("The Golden Horseshoe") in New York, with a fantastic masculine cast: Leonard Warren, Mario Del Monaco, Cesare Siepi; only Zinka Milanov was in decline by then. The 1965 Colón performances also had admirable singers: Cornell MacNeil´s magnificent Carlo, and the very good Ernani of Flaviano Labò and Silva of Jerome Hines; Margherita Roberti was a step below but still good; and Previtali was a convinced Verdian.
The French have always been interested in Spain and you may remember Corneille´s "Le Cid" as a basic reference. I read an article about "Ernani" that calls Silva the villain: he isn´t, Carlo is until the Third Act. Carlo is no less than Charles I of Spain, crowned Charles V of the Sacred Roman Germanic Empire precisely in the Third Act, at Charlemagne´s Chapel at Aix-la-Chapelle (Aachen now), in 1520.
Remember: Spain in 1519 (first two acts) is a country of extremes: in 1492 Columbus discovers America but both the Moors and the Jews are chased out of Spain; Torquemada is the terrible chief of the Inquisition. A unified Spain from then on, but one with frequent abuses. Charles was born in Ghent; crowned Charles I in 1516 when he was only 16, he knew almost no Spanish. Son of Juana la Loca, grandson of the Catholic Kings (Ferdinand and Isabel), he had to mature fast, but it was only after 1522 and a bloody purge of the revolt of the "comuneros" that Spain began to accept him. Before then, however, he took lands of noblemen. And that´s when Hugo´s Ernani comes in, for he is of noble family, but Carlo runs him into exile by a "bando"(edict); he becomes a "bandit" (that´s the real sense of the word).
Three men love Elvira but she only loves Ernani; Silva (her uncle) and the young King are the other pretenders. When Ernani disguised as a pilgrim is accepted in Silva´s castle by the laws of hospìtality he learns that Silva will marry Elvira (she thinks Ernani is dead); Ernani reveals himself and both are about to duel when the King´s arrival is announced; Silva shows an hidalgo´s loyalty and he hides Ernani. Carlo claims the bandit but Silva has given his word to save him. Honor is above all, "the Silvas don´t lie". The King takes Elvira as hostage; the others plan revenge.
But the conspirators lose in the Third Act, and the new Emperor, invoking Charlemagne, pardons them. In the Fourth Act Silva accomplishes his revenge: he has warned Ernani that if he hears three horn calls he must commit suicide; Ernani fools himself into believing that Silva would pardon him, but the old man is inexorable and Ernani obeys (he had given his word: values again).
All this with music that boasts several splendid arias, duets, trios and concertantes, plus a chorus, "Si ridesti il Leon di Castiglia", that Italians took as a call to independence.
For Buenos Aires Herald