Ermione, a azione tragica in two acts to a libretto by Andrea Leone Tottola, was first performed at Teatro San Carlo, Naples, on 27th March 1819.
The singers in the first performances were Isabella Colbran (Ermione), Rosmunda Pisaroni (Andromaca), Andrea Nozzari (Pirro), Giovanni David (Oreste), Giuseppe Ciccimarra (Pilade), Michele Benedetti (Fenicio), Maria Manzi (Cleone), De Bernardis (Cefisa) e Gaetano Chizzola (Attalo).
The story is taken from Andromaque by Jean Racine.
Pyrrhus, son of Achilles and King of Epirus, has promised to marry Hermione, daughter of Menelaus, but he has fallen in love with the Trojan prisoner Andromache, widow of Hector. At the beginning of the opera, in a dungeon, the Trojan prisoners recall the past greatness of their country and bewail their fate. Andromache enters with Attalo and Fenicio. She has been allowed to spend a few minutes with her son Astianax. Attalo advises her to take off her mourning clothes and to think from now on about her son’s future, but Fenicio interrupts him, having understood that Attalo means to encourage Pyrrhus’s love for Andromache, a love that the Greeks will never tolerate and that could only lead to another war.
Outside the palace handmaidens invite Hermione to enjoy the hunt, but the princess is suffering the pangs of jealousy. When Pyrrhus enters she reproves him for loving Andromache and threatens revenge. But Pyrrhus is not a weak man, even if he is worried by the announcement of the arrival of Orestes as messenger from the Kings of Greece. In the palace Orestes’s sole thought is of meeting Hermione again, for he has long been in love with her, but Pylades urges him to control himself and to think rather of the mission with which Greece has entrusted him. Pyrrhus enters with his court and, to Hermione’s fury, he invites Andromache to sit among the nobles. Orestes explains his mission: the Kings of Greece desire that young Astianax be put to death in order that the power of Troy should not rise again in the person of that “young shoot”. Pyrrhus not only refuses this request but publicly reveals his love for Andromache and announces his intention of marrying her. Outside the palace Cleone advises Hermione to allow Orestes to avenge her. When Orestes declares his love for her, Hermione cannot make up her mind one way or the other, but she does not repulse him. Pyrrhus returns with his followers. Since Andromache, true to the memory of Hector, has refused his hand, he has decided to give up Astianax to Oreste and to make his peace with Hermione. But when the guards lead Astianax on, Andromache is overwhelmed by her maternal instincts and she begs Pyrrhus to give her time to think matters over. Pyrrhus is delighted, whilst Hermione and Orestes are overcome with consternation and rage.
In the palace courtyard Pyrrhus is overjoyed to hear that at last Andromache has consented to become his wife and he orders that the wedding ceremony take place without delay. In reality, Andromache intends to make him swear upon the altar to protect Astianax, then she will kill herself. Meanwhile Hermione is prey to warring emotions: her love for Pyrrhus, the desire for death, and the lust for vengeance. However, enraged by the sight of the wedding procession of Pyrrhus and Andromache, she demands that Orestes kill the traitor. But she instantly regrets this, and feels once more inclined to forgive Pyrrhus – all in vain, because Orestes gives her his dagger, dripping with the blood of Pyrrhus. Hermione wildly upbraids him for not having understood her real feelings, and falls fainting to the ground after having invoked the Furies to punish the author of the crime; Pylades and his men drag Orestes back to their ship to keep him from falling into the hands of the angry populace.