Following two of their most frequently performed operas, Opera Australia has chosen one of their least performed as part of their sixtieth anniversary celebrations in Melbourne. Composed in late 1849 Verdi’s Luisa Miller predates three of his mainstays of operatic repertoire, Rigoletto, La Traviata and Il Trovatore (1851-1853), by only a couple of years and his genius can be heard in this less mature work.
The program notes discuss at repetitive length the political constraints imposed on Verdi and his librettist Cammarano in their adaptation of Schiller’s original story. Rather than a powerful critique of social inequality, what remains is yet another story of concealed identity and a self-sacrificing maiden who falls victim to male ambition and lust and the gullibility of her romantic partner. It might be a well-trodden path to inevitable doom, but the musical narrative and the quality of the performers have turned this Luisa Miller into an enticing experience for Verdi enthusiasts.
Indeed, Nicole Car’s Luisa was as radiant as anybody who had heard her acclaimed performance in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin could have wished. With a voice of lustrous, warm even tone, at once substantial and agile, plus total dramatic commitment, she gave the role a degree of pathos that compelled the suspension of all disbelief. The letter of false self-condemnation she is forced to write in order to save her father is very different from the one she writes to Onegin in her signature role; it is more akin to the note to Alfredo in La Traviata, written by a similarly wedged Violetta, a role that may well become hers as her voice matures.
As Rodolfo, the young man Luisa knows as Carlo but who is actually the son of the local lord, Count Walter, Riccardo Massi was pretty well a perfect match. Tall, handsome and in possession of a glorious tenor voice that has made him one of the rising stars of his generation, his impressive vocal quality and theatrical presence almost managed to compensate for a couple of laughably incongruous moments in the libretto. A groan rippled through the audience when he was advised to take revenge on Luisa by marrying Federica, his father’s choice of bride, but the most negative response came when Rodolfo threatened to kill Luisa rather than let her be taken away. In the end, he does persuade her to drink a cup of water laced with very slow-acting drink poison that he has already drunk from. Despite this, Massi made Rodolfo an appealing character. His aria, “Quando le sera al placido”, in which he recalls happy times with Luisa, is the most familiar music from the opera and was sung with burnished tone and ardent emotion.
To animate all this plotting, passion and remorse Verdi provided other impressive arias and ensemble pieces for his singers. A highlight is the famous unaccompanied quartet of Luisa, Sir Walter, his scheming retainer, Wurm, who will stop at nothing to have Luisa for himself, and Federica. Dominated by the soprano, success largely relied on Car’s unfaltering sense of pitch. Would the eventual entrance of the orchestra reveal any discrepancies. To hear sure-footed concordance when the orchestra eventually entered after that extended intonation tightrope walk created a sense of satisfaction that went beyond mere relief.
As Sir Walter, David Parkin gave a solid performance vocally and dramatically, accentuating some of the more sympathetic aspects of an ambitious character willing to commit murder to attain position. The final scene, where he realises that he has been partly responsible for the suicide of a son he had wished to help, was invested with some pathos and did not entail quite the level of gratification at his comeuppance that it might have. Many commentators see his aria “Il mio sangue, la vita darei” as foreshadowing the inner turmoil of Philip’s aria in Don Carlos.
A more unambiguous bass baddie is his partner in crime, Wurm. In this production, he was presented almost as a cigarette-smoking Mafioso figure in his dark suit and sunglasses. Steven Gallop has the resonant, dark vocal colour and forceful presence to convince as a lecherous, Machiavellian villain.
Sian Pendry also gave a solid performance as Federica, her rich dark mezzosoprano projecting effectively as love for Rodolfo and hope of marriage turned to jealous rage when he rejected her and confessed his love for Luisa. Baritone Michael Honeyman gave a generally persuasive account as Luisa’s less than helpful father and Eva Kong made the most of the small role of Laura.
Despite all the fine singing, Act III proved to be problematic from the vantage point of the middle of row C in the Circle. At times, an echo and sound distortion seemed to suggest that opera itself might be dying along with the soprano and tenor. Fortunately, the cause was not the dreaded spectre of amplification, but a kind of “wolf note” in the acoustic of the auditorium that is known to members of Orchestra Victoria.
This phenomenon may have been exacerbated by the set construction. A co-production of Opéra de Lausanne and Opera Australia, William Orlandi’s austere set design has the initial floor travel upwards so that it becomes a vertiginous cantilevered ceiling with its domestic scene in white marble suspended over the action. The engineering makes for a striking piece of theatre as Luisa is revealed in a black tomb surrounded by white flowers with the inverted marble statuary threatening to crash down upon proceedings. But in the final Act, there seemed to be a shifting of the overhang combined with a particular placement of the singers that led to the sound distortion.
Certain aspects of Giancarlo del Monaco’s direction were far from the naturalism purportedly aimed for. During the Overture, the set began its ascent while the chorus circled around the tomb in a stylised funereal march, dressed in mourning clothes, with the men carrying candles and the women bunches of white flowers. The black and white colour scheme sometimes reflected the nature of the characters (Luisa was always dressed in white garments) but tended to emphasise the more static elements of the production.
Whatever reservations some members of the audience might have entertained regarding the staging, the quality of the singing, particularly by Nicole Car and Riccardo Massi were enthusiastically acknowledged. Orchestra Victoria too was once again in fine form, this time under the baton of Andrea Licata, and the prominent passages for clarinet were beautifully played.
Luisa Miller might not be Verdi at his peak, but its abundance of riches explains its increasing popularity. It undoubtedly deserves repeated hearings, especially when singers of the calibre of Car and Massi are in the leading roles.
The picture of Nicole Car in the title role is by Prudence Upton.
Heather Leviston reviewed the opening night of Opera Australia’s Luisa Miller at the Arts Centre Melbourne on May 16.