Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Cabalettafest 2008

To dismiss, as many do, the plot of Ernani (or Forza, or Otello, etc.) as "silly" for the means of its characters' doom -- here, a vow to suicide upon hearing a horn (playwright Victor Hugo there echoing, incidentally, a motif from the font of French literature) -- is largely to miss the point. It is to assume that their fate is contingent, dependent on the practical skill (or, rather, the lack thereof) much comic and popular story celebrates. But in tragedy this is illusion: the leads are doomed from the moment they appear on the tragic stage -- because they appear on it -- and as the all-too-good detective Oedipus discovered, one's skillfulness and cleverness become there not a guarantee of safety but the very means of one's destruction.

Yet Ernani is notable for the matter-of-fact ease with which the main characters accept and even seize their doom. Almost the very first words out of Ernani's mouth are on the possibility of his death; Elvira talks casually of stabbing herself at the altar; etc. Even the piteous illusion of possible happiness is almost perfunctory, coming (after a lot of this sort of talk) at the very end of Act III and not even making it through the first duet of Act IV. Interestingly, one can herein see thematic and situational seeds of Verdi's greatest pre-retirement operas -- Ballo, La Forza del Destino, and Don Carlos, discussed previously together here -- but the differences are instructive. Ballo is mixed with Olympian comedy and is quite different, but the other two also share with Ernani a certain fatalistic, honor-and-duty-bound feel. Yet in the later works Verdi brings obligatory piteousness to the fore, beginning with the what-might-have-been (Forza's Act I, Don Carlo[s]' Fontainebleau scene) before almost casually dismissing the possibility (to be regretted later through the show). What's more, he dangles the notion of escape from the tragic stage itself before his characters, in the dilatoriness and reluctance of Don Carlo[s] himself (and, indeed, the opera's enigmatic ending) and the running contrast with the free-from-honor's-worries casualness of the people (and their avatars Melitone and Preziosilla) in Forza. Alvaro, the hero of the latter piece, even gets a temporary literal escape from his tragic fate by playing folk hero/saint in a monastery -- but that's not the sort of story he's in, and the role can't withstand the call of honor.

So one might find this much truth in derisive dismissals of Ernani's story: the unreflective tragic fatalism of the characters does work against the ability of an audience raised in our age of economic, political, and social self-determination to identify with them. Should they not at least chafe more, see if other fates might not be theirs, as Verdi shows them doing in other works? Well, perhaps. And yet...

The all-ahead, pre-modern embrace Ernani et al. give their passions and fates seems to me of a piece with the unrelenting vitality of the music. Verdi was young -- 30, and working for the first time with his great collaborator Piave -- and the swaying, pulsing melodies and urgent cabalettas of this score have all the wholeheartedness of youth, its pleasure in tackling what's before it. This is not, again, what we expect in a tragic score now: as I've noted in an otherwise positive new opera review, for example, composers seem for a while (I suppose one might, with Nietzsche, blame it on Wagner) to have left mostly to pop music what the cabaletta was and represents -- the ordered appeal to physical exhilaration. Verdi himself used it more sparingly later, but its heady flower here in both arias and ensembles is irresistible.

And... it's not only the characters and composer who seem bent on seizing what's before them, but the current Met revival cast. What's before them is an obstacle course of technique and feeling, and all four principals go at the hurdles with significant sound and gusto. What might happen to fall short, on any particular night, seems as beside the point as the characters' failure to be happy. In this score, as these characters, backed by Pier Luigi Samaritani's stunningly handsome traditional sets and Roberto Abbado's ever-lively conducting, the thrills of the successes are what matter.

For last night's revival opener Sondra Radvanovsky (Elvira) was announced as singing-while-ill. Though less refined than she's capable she still did show her basic appeal: a huge but flexible (with trill) quick-vibrato instrument that can produce a hurricane or a caress... even on the same breath. Marcello Giordani (Ernani), elsewhere appealing, had real difficulty from the start of his Act II aria but soldiered through and even held on for some long high notes in the cabaletta. Thomas Hampson (Charles V) took the first act to settle down but was much better for the next two, capping his night with a most eloquent rendition of his Act III cavatina ("Oh de' verd'anni miei"). And Ferruccio Furlanetto (Silva), who's been one of the great Met singers of this decade, was as remarkable as ever throughout.

*     *     *

Incidentally, tenor Ryan Smith -- one of last year's Met Council Finals winners -- made his debut last night as the King's squire. He seemed more technically sound than at the competition. I believe another 2007 winner, soprano Angela Meade, is also involved in this production -- as Radvanovsky's cover.


  1. I really love Furlanetto. Really love.

    I'll have to see if I can make it to this one; it wasn't high on my list, but who knows, and you make a good case for it. I've heard it live in concert, a real performance would be great too.

  2. no. it's as quaint, dare I say "dated", as the play upon which it was based. The elements are there, but no yet.

    OTOH, great singing.


Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.