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Verdi's career begins with a string of operas created for the Teatro alla Scala in Milan: Oberto, Un giorno di regno, Nabucco and I Lombardi. Three of these works having achieved great success (Un giorno di regno was the unhappy exception), Verdi wanted to show that he was capable of satisfying a broader audience. For that reason he was determined to make the best of an offer to write an opera for the Teatro La Fenice in Venice. The first discussions were held in the Spring of 1843, the work scheduled for the end of Carnival in 1844.
Verdi's terms were high (12,000 lire, with the warning "una somma della quale non mi contenterei l'anno prossimo"), but the theater acquiesced with only one stipulation: that a major part be provided for the contralto Caterina Vietti, under contract with the theater. Verdi was "a sworn foe to the idea of making a woman sing dressed up as a man", but evidently made no objection. The male roles in the first draft of Ernani were thus assigned to a contralto (Ernani), a tenor (Carlo) and a bass-baritone (Silva) - an obsolete casting in 1843.
The subject and the librettist were not predetermined. Verdi was dissatisfied with the libretti he had been given to work with up to this point. He was determined never again to accept an existing text or even one that had been rejected by other composers (such as Un giorno di regno and Nabucco). The leading candidates included Temistocle Solera, who had provided the libretti for all three of Verdi's successful operas, and Domenico Bancalari. Verdi described his wishes to Bancalari in a way that would characterize all his future artistic endeavors:
"Io desidererei un libretto grandioso e nell'istesso tempo appassionato, e che si staccasse dal Nabucco e dai Crociati. Siavi molto fuoco, azione moltissima, e brevità."Bancalari declined Verdi's proposal, but shortly afterwards did write his own Hernani for the Teatro Carlo Felice of Genoa with music by Alberto Mazzuccato (1813-1877). It seems possible that it was he who first suggested to Verdi the subject of Hugo's drama. Another librettist suggested by Verdi, however, Felice Romani, had already written an Ernani for Bellini (1830, music never completed). Another Ernani with the music of Vincenzo Gabussi had already been staged at the Théâtre Italien in Paris on Nov. 25 1834 (with Giovanni Battista Rubini in the title role).
At this point the president of La Fenice, Count Nani Mocenigo, put forward the name of a young protegé of his, Francesco Maria Piave. Verdi was immediately interested, very likely because he hoped to be able to impose his ideas on someone without an established reputation. Piave's acceptance of the despotic ways of the Maestro made him Verdi's preferred librettist for the next 20 years, even when the dubious quality of his poetry had become proverbial.
The librettist having been chosen, it was now necessary to select a subject. Verdi admired Shakespeare above all else, so he proposed Re Lear and Macbeth. Other possibilities were taken from Byron (Fidanzata d'Abido, Corsaro, I due Foscari). Verdi was attracted to I due Foscari because of its Venetian setting, but Mocenigo rejected the subject because there were still living descendent of the family. Piave suggested a Caterina Howard. Another proposal was Cola di Rienzi (from Bulwer-Lytton), a subject that had just been staged in Dresden by Richard Wagner (1842). La caduta de' Longobardi was rejected; the theater was hoping to capitalize on Verdi's previous successes, but the Maestro wanted something radically different. Finally Mocenigo proposed Victor Hugo's Cromwell. The subject was approved and Piave set about his work.
There was plenty of time for any afterthoughts and alterations, so Verdi simply observed Piave's efforts, making only marginal suggestions or remarks. Indeed, from a comparison of the correspondence during the writing of Cromvello and Ernani, it appears that Verdi was merely testing the ability of his collaborator, and that he had intended from the very beginning to switch to another subject, most likely Ernani. By September 1843 Piave had completed his work, the title having been changed first to Carlo in Iscozia and then to Allan Cameron. At this point Count Mocenigo expressed doubts and suggested a new start with Ernani. Verdi agreed immediately and enthusiastically, and Piave was obliged to make the best of the new situation. He may well have suspected a plot behind his back. He expressed his disappointment with the theater in delivering the first draft of the new libretto:
"Ho l'onore di presentarle la nuova azione lirica intitolata Ernani da prodursi (...) su queste scene. Io sono stato costretto a scriverla per compiacere a questa nobile Presidenza e per salvare il mio decoro; ma ho bisogno di dichiarare ch'essa non riuscirà mai di mio pieno gradimento poiché ritengo che le belle situazioni di Vittore Hugo spogliate delle precedenze e conseguenze dalle quali è d'uopo sfrondarle nella riduzione per musica perderanno molto del loro interesse, specialmente facendolo con questa precipitazione."In fact, Piave wished to precede the text with an explanation, describing Ernani as
"un de' migliori drammi del Sig.r Vittore Hugo, ch'io dovetti ridurre per musica nel modo che presento, e nel più breve tempo possibile (e che) tale brevità di tempo concessami e l'essere questo il mio primo lavoro di simil genere che vi offro, m'inducono, o cortesi lettori, a chiedervi e sperare per esso un'amica accoglienza."Many libretti begin with apologies to the reader, frequently for the inadequate adaptation of a masterwork of literature, sometimes because of the minimal time allowed the librettist. But if Ferretti had made a similar remark in the printing of La Cenerentola, it was bacause the opera had to be completed in 3 weeks, not in 6 months! Piave's preamble was not published, however...
The Allan Cameron, rejected by Verdi, did reappear some years later: it was performed at the La Fenice Theater with music by Pacini in March 1848.
Piave did not suspect at this time what working with, or rather for, Verdi was like. The writing of the new libretto began in October 1843 and at the same time Verdi began composing the music. Now the interferences with Piave's work became heavy and insistent. Verdi had already outlined the structure of the reduction of Hernani to Count Mocenigo when Piave was still working on Cromwell! The requirement of a major character en travesti had already been met. The most important singer at La Fenice at the time was the German soprano Sophie Löwe (who would later become the Princess of Liechtenstein). Piave had foreseen for her a traditional ending with a Rondò of the primadonna. Verdi's reaction was sharp ("Per l'amor di Dio non finisca col Rondò ma faccia il terzetto"). Piave changed the finale, but Verdi encountered more resistence when he had to convince Mme. Löwe to give up the final scene. He prevailed, but only after a clamorous dispute with the primadonna. Verdi disallowed the division of the third act into 2 scenes (Piave wanted it to end in the throne room), modified many ensemble scenes and shortened the recitativi whenever he could. Poor Piave retained only responsibility for the versification, which did not interest the Maestro so much. It was in the verses that his reckless metaphors were to become proverbial (from "viene il mirto a cangiarmi in cipresso" of Ernani to "senti l'orma dei passi spietati" in La Forza del Destino).
Victor Hugo's drama Hernani had been staged with great success in 1830, becoming a sort of touchstone of French Romanticism. Piave maintained the original names of the characters with the exception of Doña Sol, renamed as Elvira. Considering that some modifications were unavoidable, we can say that the libretto closely follows the original of Hugo. The major difference is in the dénouement: in Hugo's drama both lovers drink poison in a moving death scene, whereupon Ruy de Silva, desperate, kills himself. Verdi wanted a shorter and quicker ending after the great scene at Charles V's grave, so he opted for the rapid death of only Ernani. Hugo intensely objected to the modification of his work, and condemned the music drama decisively.
Ernani marks an evolution in the work of Verdi because the center of gravity is shifted from the choral mass to individuals. Choruses still play an important role in the music, but the key pages are for the solo voices. In fact, with Ernani Verdi comes closer to the usual scheme of contemporary operas. The psychology of the characters is strongly rendered: the ardent combativeness of Ernani, the majesty of Carlo, Silva's fanatic sense of honour. The only unconventional character is Elvira. Her role as victim and unhappy lover had been traditionally coupled with a weak, pathetic figure, as in Lucia di Lammermoor . Verdi chose to give her the initiative, courage and strength usually found in "cruel queens" like Lucrezia Borgia.
Political meanings are an important aspect of Verdi's youthful works, as they affected the success of these operas on Italian stages. Their influence on Verdi's creative work is often overestimated. However, patriotic sentiment could find fuel in Ernani: from choruses ("Si ridesti il Leon di Castiglia") and also from arias ("Ernani involami - all'abborrito amplesso"), signifying the rejection of Austrian rule.
In December 1843 Verdi went to Venice for the staging of I Lombardi (26 December) and to prepare his new work. The première was given on 9 March 1844. The reception was at first tepid. Verdi was dissatisfied with the performance of some singers ("Guasco era senza voce, ed aveva una raucedine da fare spavento", "è impossibile stonare più di quel che fece la Löve"). But its success grew very quickly, and even Hugo's open disapproval could not slow it down.
For additional information on the history of Ernani on stage, see its Performance History.