Opera in four acts on a libretto by Francesco Maria Piave , from the drama Hernani by Victor Hugo
Première: Venice, La Fenice Theatre, March 9th, 1844.
Act I. The bandit. In Spain and Aachen in 1519. Don Carlo is king of Spain and Ernani is planning a revolt to dethrone him. The youth is in love with Elvira and, to meet her, goes disguised to the de Sila family castle, where she lives. Elvira also loves Ernani, but she has been promised to the old count Don Ruy. But Elvira is also loved by the king, who is also at the castle. Ernani, Elvira and Don Carlo meet in the young woman's room, when Count Ruy also turns up, at first angry, but calming rapidly as the king reveals his identity; however, he demands punishment for Ernani. Aided by Don Carlo, who passes the young man off as his messenger, Ernani manages to escape the ire of the count.
Act II. The guest. The revolt against the throne has failed: Ernani takes refuge in the de Silva castle, the very day scheduled for the wedding of the count and Elvira. Certain by now he has lost his love forever, Ernani gives himself up to Don Ruy, who, out of obligations of hospitality, instead of denouncing him, takes him under his protection. The king arrives, and stealthily spirits away Elvira. Ernani swears revenge; he admits to Don Ruy his love for the girl and pledges to avenge both of them. But the old count agrees on one condition: since he has saved Ernani's life, Elvira belong to him; if the count wants her, he has only to sound the horn three times and Ernani must make good his pledge.
Act III. Clemency. The conspiracy continues. Ernani meets his companions in the underground chambers of the sepulchral monument to Charlemagne in Aachen. In the meantime, Don Carlo is elected emperor.
He could have the rebels killed, but wishes to be merciful, and, with the intercession of Elvira, lets them live provided they pledge their loyalty. As a last proof of his generosity, he gives Ernani the hand of Elvira, having realised that she will never love any other.
Act IV. The mask. The guests greet the happy couple during a sumptuous wedding feast. Among the guests, masked in a black cloak, there is also Ruy de Silva. At the height of the feast he goes into the garden and has the horn blown three times. Ernani knows what he must do: Castilian honour is severe, and he poisons himself. Over his inanimate body, the woman he loved falls lifeless, overcome by sorrow.
Despite the fiasco of I Lombardi alla prima crociata at La Fenice in Venice in 1843, in the springtime of the same year Verdi signed a contract with the theatre's director, Count Moncenigo, for a new opera. Felice Romani and Temistocle Solera were Verdi's librettists in Milano, Salvatore Cammarano in Naples, and Francesco Maria Piave became his most trusted collaborator, and later friend, in Venice. The subject chosen was Hernani by Victor Hugo, and Piave started working rapidly under the constant surveillance of the Maestro, who insisted on closely following the progress of the librettist and poet. The opera was presented on March 9th, 1844, a triumphal success, so much so that it was performed shortly thereafter in fourteen other Italian cities, and for the next decade and a half, was the most performed work of Verdi. Considering just the Scala in Milan and the Don Carlo Theatre in Naples, Ernani was presented for eight seasons for a total of 240 performances! In 1844 the city of Venice paid homage to Verdi presenting the same opera at the San Benedetto Theatre as well.
The opera arrived on the stage in Paris, where Victor Hugo had occasion to see his play given in the form of melodrama; he strongly disapproved at the transformation of his work.