Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Verdi - Luisa Miller (Liège, 2014 - Webcast)

Giuseppe Verdi - Luisa Miller

Opéra Royal de Wallonie, Liège, 2014

Massimo Zanetti, Jean-Claude Fall, Patrizia Ciofi, Gregory Kunde, Nicola Alaimo, Bálint Szabó, Luciano Montanaro, Alexise Yerna, Cristina Melis

Culturebox, - 4 December 2014

The subject of Luisa Miller is a typical one for Verdi, almost prototypical in fact in the manner in which Friedrich Schiller's original story has been reduced in scope from a more political and social intrigue down into a domestic drama that best suits Verdi's requirements. Luisa Miller is almost opera semiseria in nature, with its Tyrolean setting and overprotective fathers concerned about the reputations of their daughters, but there's nothing backward looking in Verdi's musical treatment of the subject. It's not perfect, but Luisa Miller is a work that is leading the way towards some of the composer's greatest achievements.

At the heart of Verdi's opera is indeed that familiar configuration of fathers who want the best for their children, and there are two of them here. Miller wants his pure and beautiful daughter Luisa to marry a man worthy of her and hopes she has chosen well in Carlo, but he can't help but worry about the stranger's unknown origins, and wishes she'd marry a stable, ambitious man like the Count's steward Wurm instead. For his part, Count Walter wants his son Rodolfo (who is indeed the same Carlo who is engaged to Luisa) to marry well into wealth and prestige, and has even arranged a suitable match for him with the Duchess Federica.

There's a further dark secret yet to be uncovered of course, but essentially the drama of Luisa Miller centres around this unfortunate complication of romantic interests and family responsibilities. True, everyone is acting out of consideration for what they believe are the best interests for themselves and the ones they love, but it only needs a despicable figure like Wurm (Wurm by name, worm by nature), and of course the aforementioned dark secret, to stir this up into the kind of boiling melodrama that Verdi does so well. Discovering through Wurm that Carlo is really the Count's son, Miller is convinced that he is just a heartless seducer whose intentions can't possibly be honourable. He's obviously familiar with opera semiseria works set in Tyrolean locations (Linda di Chamounix, Clari), where that would usually be the case.

That's still not much of a subject for a composer like Verdi who at this stage was approaching his best mature works in Rigoletto and La Traviata. Luisa Miller in many ways resembles and could almost be seen as a dry run for Rigoletto, where the Duke is indeed a seducer in disguise.  The closing scene in particular where Miller regrets his over-protectiveness while holding his dying daughter in his arms has strong echoes with the conclusion of Rigoletto, and to be honest, his setting and scoring for this scene, as well as the dark moments leading up to it, are scarcely any less stirring than Verdi's arrangements for the more famous work.

Verdi's strengths as a composer are already in place on the family and domestic drama, but what works much better here than in some of Verdi's earlier works is how he integrates or makes use of the political side of the drama. The overt political references might have been dropped from Schiller's 'Kabale und Liebe', but with censorship always a problem that Verdi had to work around, the composer was able to cleverly find other ways to put real contemporary social and revolutionary sentiments into his work in a way that sets them apart from the ancient historical subjects of earlier works like Nabucco, Atilla and Joan of Arc. In Rodolfo and Luisa's situation there is a struggle against social class prejudices and the injustice of a controlling patriarchy that ends up only causing division and suffering for all. Without needing to make explicit references, Verdi is nonetheless able to convey the full strength of feeling that lies behind these sentiments.

Pouring all those sentiments into a small family drama does admittedly risk turning the work into an overblown melodrama.  There's not quite the same scale or sensitivity of handling here in Luisa Miller that you will find in Verdi's mature works and particularly in later ones like Don Carlos and Aida where the characterisation is more nuanced, where the subjects of love, injustice and the abuse of authority are more fully integrated into the whole. Played right however, with an eye towards how Verdi gives voice to those small dramas writ large in the eyes of the people concerned, and bearing in mind where the composer is heading towards, Luisa Miller can be played effectively on the stage. The Opéra Royal de Wallonie in Liège are traditionally very strong at giving lesser-known and under-appreciated Verdi and Rossini sympathetic productions that play to the strengths in such works, and their Luisa Miller is no exception.

The key to the success of this production is in the casting. There are some notable names in the main roles - Patrizia Ciofi, Gregory Kunde and Nicola Alaimo - but the secondary roles are also marvellously played and sung. While the principals evidently have important parts to play, there's a recognition that some sympathy towards the fathers Count Walter and Miller, and a little understanding of their position, gives the drama a little more conviction. Both fathers are well-meaning, convinced that nothing good will come of their offspring's scorn for their wisdom. This is the conflict that drives Luisa Miller, and it helps if you have singers who can bring that out. You can see that Luciano Montanaro's Count is motivated by love for his son, while Nicola Alaimo's light, lyrical delivery has all the necessary warmth and feeling for his daughter, particularly in the critical closing scene.

Wurm is basically a cartoon villain and doesn't need to have the same consideration applied, but Bálint Szabó's performance is nicely understated and supportive of the overall tone of the production, never letting it slip over into caricature. Again, smaller details count as well for the Duchess and Cristina Melis gives a well-measured performance that makes Federica's transition from seductiveness to the bitterness of a woman scorned seem perfectly natural. And what a great Verdi singer Gregory Kunde proves to be as Rodolfo. It's rare to get the right mix of sheer passion balanced with perfect control of the technical requirements for such a role, but Kunde has all that and the acting ability to bring them together to really make you care about what happens. Ciofi's performance as Luisa is also heartfelt, although as I've found before, her voice is a little too light to carry the lower end weight of such an intensely dramatic role.

Musically, Massimo Zanetti's conducting pitches the work perfectly in terms of its dramatic and its emotional content. Every scene carries the necessary impact. Jean-Claude Fall's stage direction and the sets emphasise the divisions well, the bright open blue skies and Tyrolean woodland exteriors contrasted with the dark rooms of the Count's mansion (a hydraulic system very smoothly and cleverly flipping over from one scene to the next). There's no big concept here, the period aiming for modern without stretching beyond the requirements of the libretto. Guns are used instead of swords, but this doesn't present much of an issue, and with pistols brandished in those dark interiors, it even gives a tense Godfather-like feel to the work which is not out of place. It also helps deliver a powerful conclusion which recognises the importance of Verdi ending on a note of high drama.

Links: Culturebox,, Opéra Royal de Wallonie