Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes Giuseppe Verdi: Ernani

Yesterday’s Music History Monday post about the riot at the Astor Place Opera House noted that the house opened on November 22, 1847 with a performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Ernani. In fact, it was the first American performance of Ernani, which had received its premiere in Venice on March 9, 1844. Ernani was Verdi’s fifth opera, and it followed on the heels of two great successes: Nabucco (or “Nebuchadnezzar” of 1842)and I Lombardi alla prima crociata (“The Lombards on the First Crusade” of 1843).

Nabucco and I Lombardi made Verdi’s reputation. But even more than Nabucco and I Lombardi, Ernani made Verdi’s fame, and remained the most popular of his operas until the premiere of Il Trovatore in 1853. (Factoid: Ernani was also the first opera to be recorded in its entirety, in 1904.)

We’ll get to Ernani in a bit. But first, I’d like to use the occasion of its American premiere at the Astor Place Opera House to explore what was Verdi’s formative decade, what he called his “years of the galley slave.”

Giuseppe Verdi in 1842
Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) in 1842

The Years of the Galley Slave

On March 20, 1843, Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) – seven months shy of his 30th birthday – left his apartment in Milan to oversee a production of Nabucco in Vienna. He would not take a break until the summer of 1849, when he returned to his hometown of Busseto to live. Verdi eventually came to refer to the years between 1842 and 1851 – between the Nabucco and Rigoletto – as “the years of the galley slave”. These were the years that saw him scale the heights of the operatic world at the price of his physical and emotional health, which by 1851 had begun to disintegrate. Verdi composed 14 operas during those nine years – one of them a certifiable masterwork, Macbeth, and another, Luisa Miller, a near masterwork. During those same years – 1842-1851, across Italy, nearly 500 other new operas were written and produced in order to satisfy the Italian public’s virtually insatiable appetite for new opera.

Opera in Italy was big business, a media industry: a culture-defining popular entertainment. And like its equivalents in our culture today, cumulatively – the internet, movies, television, the music biz, and professional sports – opera in Italy was a grueling, stressful, often vicious commercial undertaking, in which singers were literally owned by impresarios and composers were forced to meet deadlines that literally shortened their lives. Not a single one of Verdi’s great contemporaries had an easy life or died a “good” death. A weakened Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835) died of dysentery at the age of 34, his immune system ravaged by overwork and stress. Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848) simply cracked up, dying at the age of 51 in a lunatic asylum. Gioachino Rossini retired from the opera world when he was only 37 years old, and while he lived for another 39 years, he was plagued to the end of his life by crippling gastric problems that he claimed had been induced by the stress and the pressures of his operatic career.…

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