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Opera in four acts
Libretto by Francesco Maria Piave after Victor Hugo's play Hernani ou L'Honneur castillan (1830)
First performed March 9th 1844, Teatro La Fenice, Venice
Concert performances, sung in Italian with German surtitles
Duration: ca. 2hrs 30mins including one interval
Three men are squabbling over the heart of the beautiful Elvira: her uncle, the vindictive, ageing, Spanish Grande Don Ruy Gomez de Silva, an aristocratic scion, Ernani, whose affections she returns, who travels around with a band of robbers, and the hot-blooded Spanish King Carlos who, after being elected German Emperor, turns into a wise, noble and self sacrificing do-gooder. When a happy end for the two lovers seems almost within reach, an abstruse sense of honour ruins everything.
After Giuseppe Verdi's first big success with Nabucco in 1842 he wanted to explore new avenues: for Ernani, written for La Fenice in Venice, he chose a play by Victor Hugo, not by chance a key French romantic work. In the foreword to his 1827 verse drama Cromwell, Hugo drew up a manifesto for a new literary movement which turned its back, once and for all, on classical aesthetics and looked back with renewed interest to the past values of Shakespeare, to perverse, horrible, grotesque driven extremes. Inspired by the vascillating, fragile characters in Hugo's Hernani ou L'Honneur castillian, Verdi created an exciting opera, breathing life into the inwardly torn figures on stage.
Background Spain, early C16: Don Juan de Aragon's father was executed by King Don Carlos' father. Stripped of his title and property he is intent on revenge. He leads a band of outlaws, calling himself Ernani. »The Bandit« Ernani is in love with Elvira, who is to marry her uncle, Duke Don Ruy Gomez de Silva. He and the bandits decide to abduct her. Elvira waits in the castle, hoping to escape with Ernani while Silva is away. King Don Carlos also has his eye on Elvira; with the help of her confidante, Giovanna, he confronts her. Elvira dismisses his declarations of love. Ernani enters. While the two men stand face to face, full of hate, and Elvira threatens to commit suicide, the head of the household appears, furious that two strangers have forced their way into his fiancée's presence. Don Carlos reveals his true identity, explaining that he seeks loyal Silva's advice: his grandfather Kaiser Maximilian has died and Carlos hopes he might succeed him. He says that Ernani is one of his men, making it possible for him to get away. »The Guest« The wedding guests praise the bridal pair. Ernani, disguised as a pilgrim, has manged to get into the castle of the duke, to whom hospitality is sacred. He drops his disguise when Elvira appears in her wedding dress, offering the money promised for his head as a wedding gift. But the laws of hospitality are more important to Silva than anything else. He is even prepared to defend Ernani from his pursuers. While Silva makes arrangements for the castle to be fortified, Ernani reproaches Elvira for her apparent infidelity. Believing that Ernani had been killed she allowed herself to be dressed for the wedding, intending to kill herself with a dagger at the altar. While they reproclaim their love for one another they are interruped by Silva, demanding satisfaction from Ernani. King Carlos stands before the gates to the castle. He and his troops have wiped out the band of rebels and suspect that their leader has found shelter with Silva. Silva shows his guest a safe place to hide and opens the gates. In fury, Don Carlos demands that the fugitive be handed over, accusing the duke of treason. Silva admits that a pilgrim had been granted shelter; but his honour and laws of hospitality forbid him from surrendering him. Carlos has Silva and his men disarmed and the castle searched, but the hiding place is nowhere to be found. He demands Ernani's head from Silva – or his own. When Elvira begs for mercy for her uncle, the King takes her as hostage instead, and departs. Silva takes Ernani out his place of concealment and challenges him to a duel. Ernani refuses because the old man is not an equal match for a fight. When he finds out that Elvira was forced to leave with the King, he tells Silva that Carlos is a rival to them both. He promises Silva his life if he will give him time to take revenge on Carlos. As a token he gives him his hunting horn, swearing that he is ready to die whenever it is sounded. He and Silva's men set off in pursuit of the King. »Mercy« Don Carlos‘ squire Don Riccardo has uncovered a conspiracy against Carlos. The conspirators intend to assemble in the crypt of Aachen cathedral, where the new Kaiser will be chosen. Standing by Charlemagne's tomb, Carlos meditates over the transitoriness of fame and power, then hides. While the Council of Electors convene, the conspirators arrive; Silva and Ernani among their number. They draw lots for who shall kill Carlos: it is Ernani. Cannons are heard announcing that the Spanish King has been elected Kaiser. He steps out from behind Charlemagne's tomb. The Electors enter to pay him homage. Don Riccardo leads Elvira into the burial chamber. When Carlos orders that the noblemen among the rebels be taken to the scaffold, Ernani reveals that he is Don Juan de Aragon, demanding the same punishment for himself. Elvira reminds the new Kaiser that mercy is a ruler's greatest virtue. Carlos wants to prove himself worthy of his predecessor and do as Charlemagne would have done: he puts aside his passion for Elvira, pardons the conspirators, reinstates Ernani's rights and gives Elvira to him as his bride. »The Disguise« Joy reigns at the party to celebrate the wedding of Ernani and Elvira. Only a dark, cloaked figure seems strangely out of place. After the guests have left a horn is heard: it is Silva, demanding Ernani's death. Unmoved by Elvira's entreaties, the old man reminds him of his oath. Ernani stabs himself in front of his bride, as a matter of honour.