Although the picture quality isn't great and the production (by Pier Luigi Samaritani) rather staid, this newly-released DVD of the late Luciano Pavarotti in Verdi's fifth opera Ernani boasts high musical standards which make it essential viewing.
Pavarotti was in his prime when the film was made in 1983, singing with the glorious golden tone which made him amongst the most important singers of his generation. One minor blip of timing in the cabaletta to his opening aria aside, he gives an immaculate account of the title role, and in spite of being in distinguished company this is really his evening. The only caveat is that he is at his most disengaged, physically: he scarcely meets the whites of the other singers' eyes, and is the complete opposite of Plàcido Domingo in the rival La Scala DVD in this respect.
It's a pleasure to see Ruggero Raimondi, one of my favourite singers, making a rare Met Opera DVD appearance in the role of Don Ruy Gomez de Silva. His arrival in the opera seems to spark an increase in dramatic pressure; nobody is more engaged in the story than he is. Once warmed up, his voice has a firmness of tone and an aristocratic edge which really suits the part.
If Sherrill Milnes (as Don Carlo) just occasionally suffers from intonation problems, the overall beauty of sound more than makes up for it. He is the ideal counterpart to Raimondi, and their confrontations are superb.
I have mixed feelings about Leona Mitchell as Elvira. She is emotional and has a powerful voice, but compared to Mirella Freni's vivid portrayal on the La Scala version she seems a little bland.
If Ernani doesn't have quite the memorable melodies and tight control over the structure of the drama of Il trovatore, it does have the same style and level of excitement. The trio finales to the third and fourth acts are as immediate as their ensemble counterparts in the later opera, while even the conventional forms of the arias don't hem in the amount of character Verdi brings to them. Of interest to Verdians is the use of an insertion aria finale to Act III for Ernani, 'Odi il voto', composed for Rossini's protégé Nicola Ivanoff in the Parma production of 1844 to replace a brief vengeance ensemble for Ernani, Silva and the household. It's ideal material for Pavarotti, who calls to mind his resilient, barnstorming Manrico at this stage in the performance.
Although the Chorus of the Metropolitan Opera sounds slightly dry of tone in the opening act, James Levine leads his forces in a generally well driven account of the score. While someone like Edward Downes would inevitably do more interesting things with it, Levine runs a tight ship, usually holding ensembles together efficiently, and there's no doubt that he allows the singers space to perform to their best ability.
In all, very much recommended, not least as a memory of Pavarotti's artistry at its best.