Opera in four acts by Giuseppe Verdi. Text adapted from Victor Hugo’s Hernani by Piave.
Ernani, an Italian rebel of obscure parentage, is the accepted lover of Donna Elvira, the high-born niece of Don Ruy Gomez de Silva, grandee of Spain.
Donna Elvira is also coveted by Don Carlos, King of Spain, and by her old uncle Silva, who is about to wed her, much against her will.
Ernani comes to Silva’s castle in the garb of a pilgrim and finds the King in Donna Elvira’s room trying to lure her away. Here they are surprised by Silva, who, failing to recognize his sovereign, challenges both men to mortal combat. When he recognizes the King in one of his foes he is in despair and humbly craves his pardon, which is granted to him. At the same time Don Carlos sends Ernani away on a distant errand, hoping to rid himself of him once for all ; but Donna Elvira vows to kill herself rather than belong either to the King or to her uncle, and promises unwavering constancy to her lover Ernani.
Nevertheless, the second act shows Elvira on the eve of her wedding with her uncle Silva.
Ernani, once more proclaimed an outlaw, seeks refuge in Silva’s castle, again disguised as a pilgrim. But when Ernani hears of Donna Elvira’s approaching marriage with Silva, he reveals his identity and offers his head to the old man, telling him that his life is forfeited and that a reward is offered for his capture. Silva is too generous to betray his rival ; he orders the gates of the castle to be barred at once. While this is being done Ernani violently reproaches Elvira for having played him false. She answers that she has been led to believe him dead. Dissolved in tears, they embrace tenderly. Thus they are surprised by Silva, who, though for the time being bound by the laws of hospitality, swears to destroy Ernani wherever he may find him.
For the moment, however, he conceals his foe so well that Don Carlos’s followers cannot find him. Though the King threatens to take the old man’s life. the nobleman remains true to his word, and even makes the greatest sacrifice by delivering Elvira as a hostage into the King’s hands.
Left alone, he opens Ernani’s hiding-place and challenges him to fight, but when the latter proves to him that Don Carlos is his rival and wants to seduce Elvira, Silva’s wrath turns against the King.
He accepts Ernani’s offer to help him in frustrating the King’s designs, but at the same time he reminds him that his life is forfeited. Ernani declares himself satisfied and gives Silva a bugle, the sound of which is to proclaim that the hour of reckoning between the two foes has come.
The third act takes place at Aix-la-Chapelle.
The King has heard of the conspiracy against his life. While the conspirators assemble in the imperial vaults he is concealed behind the monument of Charlemagne, and frustrates their designs by advancing from his hiding-place and proclaiming himself emperor.
At the same moment the people rush in and do homage to Charles V. Ernani surrenders to his foes, but Elvira implores the Emperor’s pardon, which is granted; and Charles crowns his gracious act by uniting the lovers and creating Ernani Duke of Segorbia.
Both Elvira and Ernani go to Seville to celebrate their nuptials. But in the midst of their bliss Ernani hears the sound of his bugle, and Silva appears and claims his rival’s life. In vain the lovers implore his mercy ; Silva is inexorable, and relentlessly gives Ernani the choice between a poisoned draught and a dagger. Seizing the latter, Ernani stabs himself, while Donna Elvira sinks senseless beside his corpse, leaving the aged Silva to enjoy his revenge alone. So ends this very dramatic work of Verdi’s, which has been more appreciated lately than when first produced.