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Dramatic Transformation: Verdi's 'Ernani'

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

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.

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.

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.

Copyright 2011 WDAV

Bruce Scott
Bruce Scott is supervising producer of World of Opera. He also produces NPR's long-running, annual special Chanukah Lights, with Susan Stamberg and Murray Horwitz.