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Verdi's "Ernani"

– A rare excursion, but extremely welcome –

It is heartening to note that the Aurora Opera House in Victoria will be staging, 'Ernani', one of the finest middle period operas that is occasionally quite neglected by opera lovers. It has all the elements of a grand opera with a historically spectacular plot, good characterization, some memorable musical moments and taxing roles for its main characters. Recordings have not been plentiful or frequent and many of them have been buried in companies' vaults for years. However, a detailed hunt for the rarities that make up 'Ernani's discography have yielded quite a number of 'forgotten' historical recordings bringing up the total to no less than ten, quite a staggering number for a rare opera!

The early days of Ernani

We begin our recorded survey with the very first complete set recorded in 1951. This featured Gino Penno, Giuseppe Taddei and Caterina Mancini, very much old school singers under the direction of Fernando Previtali. The recording is limited by sound constraints but a recent Everest pressing revealed a certain lucidity of score and the singing is very good especially Taddei. Two Cetra recordings from 1956/7 feature the white hot Dmitri Mitropoulos at the helm, the former casting Mario del Monaco, Leonard Warren and Zinka Milanov whilst the latter is also with del Monaco but has Ettore Bastianini and Cerquetti. Indeed it is the 1957 version that blazes out of these Cetra LPs with an intensity that has not been matched since. This recording has long since been unavailable and one hopes it should reappear very soon. The former 1956 version is currently available on a 2-disc Arkadia set, at budget price, notwithstanding atrocious sound.

The sixties; a proliferation of recordings

The next Ernani to be recorded, after a five year gap, came from the legendary baton of Gabriele Santini. The indefatigable del Monaco was accompanied by Cornell Macneill and Floriana Cavalli, this is one of the best ever versions, however it is unfortunately also unavailable, its CD release on Melodram having been recently deleted. Thomas Schippers is another conductor who immortalized himself with this opera and his two roughly contemporaneous recordings with the MET orchestra are invaluable gems. His casts include Carlo Bergonzi, Franco Corelli and the young Leontyne Price, definitely at her prime here. The 'official' RCA recording also features Price alongside Mario Sereni and Carlo Bergonzi, this time directed by Gian Andrea Gavazzeni. This is still an excellent recording; it features beautiful sound and is available in the mid price RCA "Opera!" Series. Many would go for this fine set, and I would not disagree! Gavazzeni reappears in a Nuova Era issue recorded in 1969 featuring the erstwhile talents of Montserrat Caballé and the much underrated Peter Glossop, you could do much worse if you hunted down this set which includes some of the most spellbinding singing I've ever heard from Glossop and Co. Yet another recording emanates from the Bilbao Opera with Giuseppe Taddei, Gianfranco Cecchele and Leyla Gencer in the principle roles, this one includes artists past their prime and is for curiosity purposes only.

Our last recording from this decade is certainly not to be discounted; it is a 1969 version with the young Placido Domingo, Carlo Meliciani and Raina Kabaivanska with Antonino Votto conducting the orchestra of La Scala. This version is now available on Arkadia and I would advise any bargain hunters to snap this one up before it is too late and it disappears from the scene!

Four later versions

Two live recordings follow next, one from 1972 with Gavazzeni, Bergonzi, Caupuccilli and Genzer (Catania) and an Arena di Verona recording from the same year with Corelli, Cappucilli and Ligabue. Both are dully recorded although the former set has some fine points, especially Bergonzi's masterly singing. The versatile Hungarian label, Hungaraton released the first digital recording in 1981 with Lamberto Gardelli conducting homegrown forces and bolstered by an excellent team of soloists including Giorgio Lamberti, Lajos Miller and Sylvia Sass. Ernani's most famous recording came in 1983 with Riccardo Muti conducting the La Scala forces and a strong cast headed by Placido Domingo, Renato Bruson and Mirella Freni. For many, this is the definitive version although there is some slightly annoying stage noise at certain points. The final recording in Italian comes from 1991 with the additional tenor aria 'O di' voto'. This features Vincenzo la Scola, Paolo Coni and Daniela Dessì with the Orchestra Nazionale d' Italia under Giuliano Carulli. It is also a very good recording including a sumptuous libretto and extensive historical notes. The English label, Chandos Records, has recently released their own 'Ernani' in their "Opera in English" series, which is a useful alternative but definitely does not displace the original. This exhaustive listing of versions shows that 'Ernani' may not be a 'Rigoletto', but it is definitely not overlooked or abandoned!

Copyright © 2002, Gerald Fenech