I never go to a prima if I can help it; I got to the second performance of Ernani this season on Friday. Sondra Radvanovsky called in sick, replaced by a debutante, Angela Meade, who had aroused interest at the Met auditions a year or two back.
Ernani gets very little respect. For years, before the 1930s, it was the only pre-Rigoletto Verdi anyone ever heard, and it struck listeners as an unwieldy rough sketch for Trovatore. Certainly, as with Trovatore, it makes its biggest effect if you have four great singers on stage willing to toss caution (but not technique) to the winds. Such singers faded out after World War II, just about the time the world was rediscovering the charms of Macbeth and Nabucco and Don Carlos. The Met had them for a while, but it doesn't have them now.
The 1983 production is gaudy-grandiose, designed to circulate (staircase by staircase) gigantically around Luciano Pavarotti at his peak, when many other things could be ignored. Giordani looks slim for it; unfortunately he sounds slim for it too - the metallic sheen that can thrill in Gioconda and Huguenots and Tosca sounds a bit unvaried here, where the tenor must sing double-arias without much personality or plot development to give them character. He was, I believe, ill advised to retain the Act II double aria - his second of the evening - that the Met dug out of the archives and inserted for Pavarotti's benefit. It does not fit in the drama - Verdi tossed it off as a favor - and for 1500 ducats - to a tenor protégé of Rossini, then the grand old man (52 to Verdi's 30) of Italian opera, whom Verdi did not know and wished to cultivate. Worse, Giordani sounded desperate for a glass of water halfway through, and though he managed the rest, was forcing his way through the line.
Thomas Hampson sang Don Carlo gracefully, as is appropriate - he is the only main character in this opera, after all, who is not certifiably insane. Ferruccio Furlanetto sounded woolly and, well, old, as Silva - who is old, so that was all right. No Ramey-esque wobble, a performance of some distinction.
As for the debutante: Angela Meade, a pretty, plump-ish (not fat) lady who sang the role without stage rehearsal, managed "Ernani involami" without crashing and burning and some lovely scalework at the end, but some bumpy bits before that and a colorless trill. The Met, being the Met, responded politely. Then she seemed to fade away, voice vanishing or else it was some pretty high notes and an unconnected chest in Acts II and III. Strange and unsettling — just too young or voice too small for the house, I wasn't sure. But she was perhaps holding back (she certainly didn’t act unsure of herself): In Act IV she came rushing in with that big high A to launch the final trio, and suddenly we’re across the border into Verdiland: a full-sized deep and even spinto of great beauty with good top and great passion. Don’t ask me where this person (and voice) had been all night because there had been hardly a peep of it before. Evening concludes in triumph.
(If you can only manage one note, make it your last one and audiences will forgive you anything; if you waste the good notes to begin, they’ll have forgotten them by the time you conclude.)
So … she’s young … she has potential … will she be Tebaldi or Susan Dunn? (Or — yitch — Mescheriakova.) Is it the rich turtle soup I’m tasting or merely the mock?
It was an interesting night.