Oh, this is a good one!
Ernani is significant in a number of ways : it was based on a play by Victor Hugo (to whom Verdi would return with Rigoletto), it was his first work to be commissioned by La Fenice, and it marks his first collaboration with the librettist Francesco Maria Piave with whom he would collaborate on no fewer than ten operas over a twenty year period. In 1904 it became the first opera to be completely recorded. On 40 discs it must have been hard work if you wanted to listen to the whole thing in one sitting.
The plot : Don Juan of Aragon has been stripped of his title and lands by King Carlos, and now lives as a bandit under the name of Ernani. His attempt to save his true love Elvira from a forced marriage to the villainous de Silva is foiled by the sudden intervention of the King, who abducts her. Ernani accepts Silva's protection from Carlos, and the two team up to free Elvira, but Silva's price is a high one - Ernani will owe him a perpetual debt. After various failed conspiracies King Carlos has a change of heart, and frees Elvira to marry Ernani. But just when we think we're going to have a happy ending, Verdi and Piave twist the knife : Silva reappears and hands Ernani a dagger. He has come to collect his debt - Ernani is to kill himself...
The recording : Richard Bonynge and Welsh National Opera, with Luciano Pavarotti and Joan Sutherland. Sutherland's performance in particular, is remarkable : phrases that
would sound squally or shrieky in the hands of a lesser artist are here
delivered with the lightness of a feather and the precision of a laser.
For the first time Verdi was in complete control of his material - he as composer would now drive the drama, rather than his librettist. It's a taut, dramatic and enjoyably nasty piece.