I was clearing the old videotapes out of my collection when I came upon this one. It is a visually spectacular La Scala production from 1982 and there is drama from the moment when a youthful-looking Riccardo Muti raises his baton. On the front row an elegant Italian woman suddenly leaps in the air and looks around as if she has been goosed by a man in the second row. Then she leans forward to glare at the orchestra members before settling back in apparent despair, with her head in her hands. Events are almost as dramatic on stage.
The opera starts with a rousing soldiers' chorus followed by a tour-de-force aria by Plácido Domingo as the outlaw Ernani. This is early Verdi, dating from 1844 and the influence of Donizetti is very obvious, both here and in Elvira's arias, sung thrillingly by Mirella Freni. The story is an eternal quadrilateral. Ernani, the bandit is rival in love for Elvira with Don Carlo, the King of Spain and with Silva, her elderly uncle. These baritone and bass parts are sumptuously sung by Renato Brusson and Nicholai Ghiaurov.
This is a story about masculine notions of honour. The three men have ample opportunity to kill their rivals at various points but refrain for reasons of chivalry. Vitally, at one point when Silva can kill Ernani, the bandit gives him a raincheck saying that if ever in the future he wants him dead all he has to do is sound his horn. In a fit of largess Don Carlo forgives everyone and preparations for the wedding between Ernani and Elvira are underway when a horn sounds.
I have always thought that the one, sure-fire way to distinguish between an opera and a musical is: if the hero ends up dead, it is a musical, if the heroine ends up dead it is an opera but Ernani confounds my theory. A reasonable feminist critique of this opera may be that Elvira should be allowed to choose her own husband rather than being squabbled over by three men who take little account of her feelings. Maybe that was why the lady in the front row was so angry.