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20 august 2019

Hernani was one of the great cultural scandals of 19th-century France. At least so says my marvelous little 1972 Bordas edition of the play, full of ancillary notes, photos, essays, and study questions. The 1830 premiere of Hernani drew hisses of derision from the classical claque, and an equally spirited defense from the young artistic radicals of Paris, led by the likes of Balzac and Berlioz. They were arguing over … I can't for the life of me really tell what. Apparently Victor Hugo's way of enjambing his alexandrines violated neoclassical precepts. Apparently the line "Vous êtes mon lion superbe et généreux!" (Act 3, Scene 4; 106) – You are my lion, magnificent and generous – was so risqué that proper Parisians were shocked to their marrow, and even the actress Hugo wrote it for was reluctant to speak it. French people in the 1830s were strange.

That, or one might just suspect that the furore over Hernani has been somewhat overstated by literary historians, to make for a more spectacular cultural watershed in retrospect. In the glittery French theatrical tradition that spans from Beaumarchais in the late 18th century to Rostand in the late 19th, Hernani now reads like a fairly normal entry. Hugo's play is polished to a high gloss, jam-packed with panache, completely preposterous, full of a sly humor about its own excesses. Hernani is Romantic with a capital R, maybe all-caps. But though it draws from Ossian and Chatterton, Byron and Walter Scott, Chateaubriand – and would inspire Barbey d'Aurevilley, Féval, and MériméeHernani remains comparatively aloof in its excesses. The play delivers its florid emotions with a touch of absurdity.

The very first event of the play, after all, involves the King of Spain breaking into a woman's bedroom and then hiding in a wardrobe while she entertains her bandit lover. The king keeps complaining about how stuffy the wardrobe is, and how bad its acoustics are for eavesdropping.

The main plot of Hernani – which, come to think of it, doesn't have any subplots – is a romantic rectangle. Our heroine, Doña Sol, is in very-much-requited love with the title brigand. The King, Don Carlos, loves her too, and is used to getting his way. But both young men have to deal with the fact that Doña Sol is being saved up for marriage, along the lines of Beaumarchais' Rosine, by her ancient uncle, Don Ruy Gomez. They do not deal with this fact very well.

They deal with it so badly that, in real life, you wouldn't get out of the first scene; all three guys would end up on the floor poignarded by one of the other characters, probably two of them by Doña Sol herself, who wields a mean dagger. But Hugo, to prolong the drama to five acts, keeps putting the three contenders in situations where they magnanimously preserve one another's lives. At one point, Hernani is so impressed by Don Ruy Gomez's prolongation of his life that he agrees to end said life whenever Don Ruy Gomez asks. These men are honorable, but nobody said they weren't idiots.

As you might imagine, Hernani's rash promise comes back to bite him in the ass. By the fifth act, Don Carlos has been elected Holy Roman Emperor and stepped sideways out of the plot, leaving a less manageable triangle. Hernani has been revealed as the rightful Don Juan of Aragon, and magnanimously (of course) restored to his rights by his former enemy, the Emperor. Don Ruy Gomez is through with the magnanimous stuff, though. He reminds Hernani of his die-when-I-say-so oath, and everything ends very badly indeed. Hernani is funnier than hell sometimes, but it ends distinctly as a tragedy.

It is odd, perhaps, that Victor Hugo, the great liberal who in his novels would so profoundly sympathize with poor, marginalized, incarcerated, and disabled people, should have splashed onto the French cultural scene with this vapid melodrama of nobility. Much of the latter half of Hernani is taken up with Don Ruy Gomez apostrophizing his noble ancestors, and Don Carlos musing about his inheritance from Charlemagne. But Hugo could be royalty-struck. He had a serious mancrush on Napoleon I that he never quite let go of, even when he was being persecuted by Napoleon III. And, at the time of our play, he was very young. Hernani premiered the night before Victor Hugo's 28th birthday.

Hernani was a natural for operatic adaptation. In 1844, Giuseppe Verdi brought it to the stage with a libretto by Francesco Piave. It was their first collaboration of many, and the second smash hit of Verdi's career, after Nabucco. Verdi himself was only 30 when Ernani opened.

Much of the subtlety of Hernani – the fretting about the details of aristocracy, the wardrobe-hiding, the disguises and mistaken identities – gets dropped from the adaptation. Concealed identities are sometimes used in operas, but they are hard to maintain for long: heck, in opera you can recognize somebody by voice alone. In Act I of Ernani, the old uncle (now called Silva) fails to recognize Don Carlo, but is soon set straight by one of those messengers who are among opera's more helpful devices. In Act II, Silva briefly thinks that Ernani is an anonymous pilgrim. In Hugo's play, this mistake goes on for quite a while, getting richer and richer; in Verdi, it lasts for about eight bars, at which point our hero throws back his pilgrim's cowl and exclaims "Sono il bandito Ernani!"

The splashy Huguesque touches, the intricate discursive speeches, and the brilliant, balanced, antithetic language of Hernani are untranslatable to opera. In Hugo, Don Carlos recites a 150-line speech of rumination about Charlemagne. Piave and Verdi condense it to a 40-word aria ("Oh, de' verd'anni miei") of intimate reflection on his dreams and fears. You have to say that the adaptors made some good choices. In the process, Ernani becomes mostly various characters hollering at each other. Fortunately, Verdi was good at that, too.

I recently watched a video of the 1983 Metropolitan production, conducted by James Levine with an outstanding chorus and a cast hard to top for vocal power: Leona Mitchell as Elvira (as the opera calls Doña Sol), Luciano Pavarotti as Ernani, Sherrill Milnes as Don Carlo, and Ruggero Raimondi as Silva. The video becomes a can-you-top-this of vocal ostentation, and the audience loved it; Milnes in particular brought down the house with "Oh, de' verd'anni miei." But as over-the-top as everything is in this production, I don't sense gratuitous showing-off; I sense faithfulness to Verdi. Critics have noted that Verdi, despite the public and political themes of some of his early operas, was always most drawn to personal emotions. He wrote the arias and duets of Ernani as a way of trying to capture the inexpressible excesses of Romanticism, excesses that Victor Hugo himself, by comparison, buttoned down and bottled up.

Hugo, Victor. Hernani. 1830. Paris: Bordas, 1972.