Dramatic Transformation: Verdi's 'Ernani' It wasn't just Shakespeare who inspired Verdi to new creative heights — he also drew from the author of 'Les Miserables.'
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Hear An Introduction To 'Ernani'

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Dramatic Transformation: Verdi's 'Ernani'

Dramatic Transformation: Verdi's 'Ernani'

Hear An Introduction To 'Ernani'

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Bass Ferruccio Furlanetto as Carlo in 'Ernani.' Rocco Casaluci/courtesy of Teatro Comunale di Bologna hide caption

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Rocco Casaluci/courtesy of Teatro Comunale di Bologna

Bass Ferruccio Furlanetto as Carlo in 'Ernani.'

Rocco Casaluci/courtesy of Teatro Comunale di Bologna

It takes a special sort of creative alchemy to transform great literature into great opera, and nobody did it better than Giuseppe Verdi.

The best example of that may be the Shakespearean dramas. Of the hundreds of Shakespeare-based operas composed over the centuries, barely a handful have been truly successful. Verdi wrote three of them: Macbeth, Otello and Falstaff.

The Hit Single

In Act Four, it seems--for a moment--that the story will end happily, as Elvira and Ernani (soprano Dimitra Theodossiou and tenor Rudy Park) are about to be married. But things are interrupted by the arrival of Silva (baritone Marco di Felice), who demands that Ernani fulfill his pledge to take his own life. Elvira begins their emotional trio with the words "Ferma, crudele" — "Cease, cruelty."

'Ferma, crudele'

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But Verdi's affinity for great literature didn't stop there. He also wrote three operas based on works by the great German dramatist Friederich von Schiller. Those were I Masnadieri, La Forza del Destino and Don Carlo. Two Verdi operas, Il Corsaro and I Due Foscari, have their origins in the works of Lord Byron. Verdi turned to Voltaire for Alzira, to Alexandre Dumas for La Traviata and to a play by Victor Hugo for his popular tragedy Rigoletto. And a Hugo drama was also at the root of one of Verdi's earliest hits, the romantic potboiler Ernani.

The B Side

When Carlo arrives in Act One, he's surprised to find Ernani and Silva arguing over Elvira, the woman he loves. After a dramatic recitative (Che mai vegg'io!), he sings the emotional aria "Infelice! e tuo credevi" — "Fool! I had believed she was pure." In this Bologna production, the role is performed by bass Ferruccio Furlanetto, still in fine voice at the age of 62.

'Infelice! e tuo credevi'

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At the beginning of his career, Verdi became known for historical operas with thinly veiled political messages that appealed to Italian nationalism. Those dramas included Nabucco and I Lombardi, both of which premiered at La Scala in Milan. When Nabucco was also a triumph in Venice, Verdi was asked to write a new opera for that city's main opera house, La Fenice.

While considering material for the piece he looked at Shakespeare's King Lear as well as a historical story by Sir Walter Scott. Ultimately, Verdi settled on pure romance: Hugo's play Hernani, the story of a single woman loved by three very different men, all at each other's throats.

The drama gets so caught up in desperate passion and personal vendettas that, for the sake of honor, two of the men offer to have their own heads chopped off — in the same act! It also turned out to be a near-perfect vehicle for a confident young composer looking to let out all the emotional stops. The resulting opera took Venice by storm, and set Verdi off on one of the most successful careers in the history of opera.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Verdi's Ernani in a production from the Teatro Comunale in Bologna, featuring a strong international cast. The young Korean tenor Rudy Park sings the role of Ernani; Greek soprano Dimitra Theodossiou is Elvira, the woman he loves; and bass Ferruccio Furlanetto and baritone Marco di Felice are Silva and Carlo, Ernani's rivals.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

The Story Of 'Ernani'

Verdi's opera is in four acts and takes place in 1519. ACT 1 opens in the Pyrenees, where the notorious bandit Ernani is camped out with his men. He's deeply in love with Elvira, who's being forced to marry her guardian Silva. The men promise to help Ernani rescue his lover from this unhappy marriage.

The second scene is in Elvira's apartment in Silva's castle. Silva has gone out, and Elvira hopes he never returns -– she thinks he's hideous, and sings of her love for Ernani. But the big problem is the third man who's in love with Elvira. He's Don Carlo, King of Spain, a man who's accustomed to getting what he wants. Before long he makes an appearance, and what he wants is perfectly clear.

A scene from this production of 'Ernani.' Rocco Casaluci/courtesy of Teatro Comunale di Bologna hide caption

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Rocco Casaluci/courtesy of Teatro Comunale di Bologna

A scene from this production of 'Ernani.'

Rocco Casaluci/courtesy of Teatro Comunale di Bologna

As Elvira is resisting Carlo's advances, Ernani shows up. He's been the king's mortal enemy ever since Carlo's family murdered Ernani's father years ago. Before long, the two are making violent threats. In the middle of everything, Silva comes home.

He doesn't know who either of these guys is, and he's not thrilled to find two strange men in his fiancée's bedroom. Silva draws his sword to fight Carlo when someone points out that the fellow he's about to attack is the king. Silva thinks better of this and instead offers his hospitality.

Ernani has no such qualms. He'd be more than happy to kill the king — that is, if he weren't surrounded by armed men. Still, for obscure reasons, Carlo decides to let Ernani go. Macho honor being what it is, Ernani is inclined to fight it out. But as the act ends, he agrees to leave — if only to have a better chance to skewer Carlo later on.

ACT 2 is called "The Guest." It opens in Silva's castle, where his wedding to Elvira will soon take place. As preparations are underway a strange pilgrim appears, and Silva — always a good host — offers his hospitality. This guest, naturally, is Ernani in disguise. Silva doesn't recognize him. But Elvira does, and she knows there's bound to be trouble. Ernani thanks Silva for receiving him. Then, when he learns about the wedding and thinks Elvira has betrayed him, he offers a gift: his head. Everyone is aghast, and both Silva and Elvira figure that Ernani has gone nuts.

Ernani reveals his identity, and says the king's men are after him. As Ernani's host, Silva is duty bound to protect him, and leaves to fortify the castle. Alone with Ernani, Elvira assures him that she'd rather kill herself rather than endure a wedding night with Silva. When Silva returns, he finds his fiancée in Ernani's arms. Enraged, Silva says he'll still protect Ernani from Carlo, but only so he can punish Ernani himself, after the king has gone.

The king's emissary appears, asking if Carlo may enter. Silva agrees — but sends Ernani into hiding. When Carlo arrives, he demands that Silva turn Ernani over. Silva refuses, saying he vowed his protection. Carlo then says Silva has a choice: either produce Ernani, or Carlo will take Elvira for himself. Silva truly loves Elvira, and says he'd sooner lose his own head. But Carlo is the king, and honor is honor, so Silva turns Elvira over and Carlo leaves, taking Elvira with him.

Silva then challenges Ernani to a duel. At first, Ernani is reluctant to fight an old man — but he has his honor as well. After all, he did seduce Silva's fiancée, and Silva did hide Ernani from the king, so he owes him one. Ernani says that Silva has saved his life, so if Silva wants to kill him, so be it. But he also tells Silva that the king really is in love with Elvira. Silva hadn't figured this out yet and now wants to get even with Carlo, as well.

Who's Who

Ernani ........................ Rudy Park

Dimitra Theodossiou ...... Elvira

Ferruccio Furlanetto ... Carlo

Marco di Felice ............ Silva

Silvia Calzavara...... Giovanna

Andrea Taboga ...... Riccardo

Sandro Pucci ............... Jago

Teatro Comunale di Bologna Orchestra and Chorus

Roberto Polastri, conductor

Ernani is still quite willing to die for honor, and offers Silva a deal: He'll join forces with Silva to pursue Carlo. But Ernani also gives Silva a hunting horn and says that any time Silva wants him dead, just sound the horn, and Ernani will kill himself. Silva agrees, and the two declare vengeance on the king as the act ends.

ACT 3 takes place in a dark catacomb near the tomb of Charlemagne. A new Holy Roman Emperor is about to be named, and Carlo is in the running. But he's also heard that there's a plot against his life.

Carlo hears people coming, and hides in the tomb as the conspirators appear. Ernani is among them. They draw straws to see who will have the honor of assassinating Carlo, and Ernani wins. But just then three cannon shots are heard, announcing that Carlo has been named emperor.

Carlo's people pour into the catacomb, and the conspirators are surrounded. Carlo's first impulse is to have all their heads chopped off. But Elvira intervenes, and Carlo, in the spirit of Charlemagne, agrees to be merciful. He spares the would-be assassins, and says that Ernani and Elvira should be married.

As ACT 4 begins, the wedding is being prepared at Ernani's estate. Everything seems merry, and Ernani and Elvira declare their love. Then, Ernani hears a hunting horn in the distance, and knows what has to happen. He pretends to be ill and sends Elvira off for help. When she's gone, Silva appears and offers Ernani a dagger so he can go through with his pledge.

Elvira returns, and tries to soften Silva's resolve, telling him how much she loves Ernani. Silva knows the two are in deeply in love, and says that's exactly why Ernani is about to die. A man of honor to the end, Ernani stabs himself in the heart, and Elvira collapses in shock as the opera ends.