Thursday, February 25, 2021

The Battle of Hernani

Today, February 25th, is the anniversary of the so-called "Battle of Hernani" when partisans for and against Victor Hugo fought in the auditorium of the Comédie-Française.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the Metropolitan Opera streamed this evening (available until Friday night) Giuseppe Verdi's operatic version of the play, Ernani. Like the original play, the opera is not terribly realistic, but it wasn't meant to be. It was the plot's over-the-top Romanticism that provoked audience members to resort to fisticuffs back in 1830.

The title character of the play is a bandit who gets into an unlikely love triangle with the beautiful Doña Sol, the King of Spain, and Doña Sol's elderly guardian Don Ruy Gomez de Silva. During the pivotal third act, the guardian has arranged to marry Doña Sol against her will, but Hernani shows up in disguise. Ruy Gomez offers hospitality to Hernani, not aware of who he is, and then the king shows up and carries off the would-be bride.

Sound crazy? It gets even crazier. Ruy Gomez refuses to give up his guest in spite of the fact that he really wants him dead, so duty-bound he is to the laws of hospitality. Hernani needs to go and rescue Doña Sol, but Ruy Gomez won't let him leave until he makes a promise. In order to escape and save his love, Hernani gives a horn to Ruy Gomez, promising to die when his enemy sounds the horn, if he will only give him a chance to rescue Doña Sol.

The fourth act takes place in a chapel that holds the tomb of Charlemagne. The king is awaiting his election as Holy Roman Emperor, but conspirators, including both Ruy Gomez and Hernani, are planning to assassinate him. The king (naturally) hides inside the tomb and surprises the conspirators. It turns out that Hernani is actually the exiled John of Aragon, the king is elected Emperor Charles V, everyone gets pardoned, and Doña Sol finally becomes engaged to her one true love. (That would be John/Hernani.)

You know what the problem is with giving your sworn enemy a horn and promising to kill yourself as soon as he sounds it and calls for your death? Well, sometimes he waits until the fifth act, shows up at your wedding, and then sounds the horn so you have to die. Then you and your bride both end up taking poison, your rival kills himself, and the whole stage gets littered with bodies.

Verdi's opera ends a bit differently, with Hernani (called Ernani) and his love (called Elvira in the opera) stabbing themselves instead. Also, old Gomez de Silva also doesn't off himself at the end (at least not in the Met's production). The lovers get to die to beautiful music, though, and that makes all the difference.

The Battle of Hernani in 1830 fell short of an all-out riot. A few people were arrested, but the play was allowed to finish, and it went on to run for a total of 39 performances. The Met's production won't be available for nearly that long. It disappears at 6:30 pm on Friday, so catch it while you can!