Malmö Opera, 2012
Michael Güttler, Stefano Vizioli, Olesya Golovneva, Vladislav Sulimsky, Taras Shtonda, Luc Robert, Ivonne Fuchs, Lars Arvidson, Emma Lyren
Arthaus Musik - Blu-ray
It's not often that you see something new or conceptual attempted with an early Verdi opera. Partly that's because they aren't performed often enough and, on the rare occasions they are produced, it's usually safer to keep unfamiliar works in their original setting rather than confusing the audience with a high-concept production. Partly however, it's got a lot to do with the relatively straightforward subjects of the works themselves not really lending themselves to reinterpretation. The themes in Luisa Miller are based however on universal sentiments, so there's no reason why - despite some creaky plot points - that something a little more adventurous can't be attempted with the staging.
The Malmö Opera's 2012 production of Luisa Miller finds an excellent way to make Verdi's opera a little more visually interesting than this particular work might otherwise be, without having to obscure the original dramatic points in some ill-fitting modernised concept. The costumes remain period and traditional, all the drama is carried out according to the stage directions (there's no anachronistic use modern technology or appliances), but there's a little bit of stylishness applied to the set designs - and perhaps a little symbolism - that works well to give a little bit of extra emphasis to the dramatic situation.
Based on 'Kabale und Liebe' by Friedrich von Schiller, the plot of Luisa Miller is a familiar one, or at least familiar in Verdi adaptations of such material. In broad terms it's about fathers and sons, fathers and daughters, it's about family and duty, it's about love and betrayal, freedom and suppression. Luisa is planning to marry Carlo, who is in reality Rodolfo, son of a wealthy landowner. Rodolfo's father Count Walter however has other plans for a more favourable alliance that can be achieved by his son marrying the Duchess Federica. In between, there's the manipulative figure of Wurm, the Count's steward, who is in love with Luisa himself and does his best to blackmail her into renouncing her love for Rodolfo.
The plot doesn't really need any extra spelling out, and Verdi's score speaks plainly and eloquently enough for itself, but a little bit of theatrical reinvention can make some of the more melodramatic points sit a little better with a modern-day audience. Rather than merely providing backdrops, the staging at Malmö illustrates this situation well with some big gestures. Two giant hands split the platform of a grassy verge when Wurm makes his divisive entrance in Act I, boxed-in rooms close down Luisa's options in later scenes, and a huge hand puts the squeeze on the lovers in Act III. It's slightly abstract, but in keeping with the tone of the work, the colours and lighting playing just an important a role in matching the heightened reality of the drama.
Verdi traditionally scores rousingly for such material, and he does so here in Luisa Miller as well. The score doesn't perhaps quite have the mastery of characterisation that can be found in his subsequent works - not just the mature works, but the sophistication that can be found in the not-far-off La Traviata and Rigoletto - but it's perfectly attuned nonetheless to the dramatic narrative. As conducted here for Malmö Opera by Michael Güttler, the orchestra give Verdi's score a romantic sweep that is in keeping for this work, although I daresay it would be attacked more idiomatically and with a little less delicacy by an Italian orchestra. As it is, it sounds wonderful here, showing the beauty of Verdi's arrangements.
Verdi's other great achievement in Luisa Miller is in his writing for the voice. Arias are well-placed at key moments and have the necessary impact ('Quando le sere al placido' in Act II being one of the work's few famous highlights), but Verdi also drives the narrative through duets, punctuates it with some beautiful choral work and even throws in an acapella quartet to show off the beauty of the combined voices. It's wonderful if you have the right singers in the roles and the cast and chorus at Malmö show how impressive that writing is. In the main roles, that's Luc Robert as the conflicted Rodolfo and Olesya Golovneva as Luisa, but there's good support from Vladislav Sulimsky as Miller and Lars Arvidson as Wurm.
Golovneva in particular has the right temperament and timbre for this character. It should not an overpowering soprano voice but that of a delicate woman, initially bright, happy and in love who is gradually broken down by manipulative figures through fear of reprisals. The journey to her death is tricky to navigate, but Golovneva manages to sing the role without the melodramatic mannerisms that you might expect, yet still make her Luisa heartfelt and expressive. It's a style of performance that is perfectly in keeping with the intentions of the production and the staging here at Malmö, showing how effectively early-to-mid Verdi can be treated without revising or reinterpreting the work.
Malmö Opera's Luisa Miller is released on Blu-ray and DVD by Arthaus Musik. On Blu-ray, the disc is BD25, all region with subtitles in Italian, English, German, French and Korean. The filming is excellent, using lots of close-ups that show the intensity of the performances, the recording capturing the strong colour schemes that also play a part in setting the tone of the work.