If you saw the heading and picture and thought that Luisa Miller was a new singer doing a series of concerts, you are forgiven. Really only opera aficionados are familiar with the nineteenth century Italian opera entitled Luisa Miller. And yet, it was written by Giuseppe Verdi, composer of La Traviata, Rigoletto, Il Trovatore and Aida. Verdi was so famous and so popular that more than 200,000 people lined the streets at his funeral to pay him tribute, which remains to this day the largest public assembly ever held in Italy. Despite the fact that it contains a hit tenor aria popularised by Placido Domingo among others, Luisa Miller has been almost completely overshadowed by Verdi’s other giant works which came hot off its’ heels in his fertile middle period of composition.
Based on Schiller’s play ‘Love and Intrigue’, the plot follows Luisa and Rodolfo, two young people desperately in love. Luisa’s father, a widowed retired soldier, is suspicious of the relationship and protective of his beloved daughter, not wanting her to be seduced by a complete stranger. When he discovers that Rodolfo has been dishonest with Luisa, disguising himself with a false name and hiding his true identity as the Count’s son, he becomes incensed. Meanwhile, Rodolfo’s father is likewise opposed to the young couple’s relationship, but for far less honourable reasons. Count Walter aims to secure a more profitable match for his son than the low-born Luisa and has his sights set on the young duchess Federica to introduce the family to Court. He has Luisa’s father arrested and jailed. Eager to take advantage of the situation is the duplicitous Wurm, the Count’s steward, who dupes the distraught Luisa into saving her father from execution by denying her love for Rodolfo and declaring to be truly in love with him. At the risk of spilling a plot-spoiler, let’s just say the finale is worthy of a Shakespearean tragedy.
In terms of characterisation, there’s not much subtlety. The good are oh so good, and the bad are irredeemable villains. It’s impossible not to root for the sweet, innocent and yet doomed Luisa or for her upright, principled father and his ideals of parental generosity and fairness. But whatever weaknesses there are in the overly melodramatic and predictable plot, these are more than mitigated by the strength and beauty of Verdi’s score. The vocalisation is lavish and melodic, with a highlight being the unique acapella quartet in the second act. The orchestration is equally novel and imaginative, featuring an organ, an obscure instrument or two, horns both on and off-stage, and a prominent clarinet part, played beautifully by Phillip Green. The Opera Australia and Ballet Orchestra, under the baton of the natural-born Verdian Andrea Licata, does justice to the rich, vigorous music, pacing and shaping it to effect, discreetly holding back their dynamic power for a crescendo up to the dramatic emphasis of the grand final scene.
The choices made by Director Giancarlo Del Monaco along with Opera Australia and Switzerland’s Opéra de Lausanne in their new co-production actually embrace and exacerbate the excessive intensity of the melodrama, making it deliberately stylised and symbolic. When the audience enters the hall, the stage is already set, with Designer William Orlandi’s austere black and white scene of marble statues arranged as a monument to the picture-perfect bourgeois family. Instead of a curtain rise, as the orchestra plays the overture, bourgeois domesticity is literally turned on its head, as the monument gradually rises until it is fully upside-down, where it remains suspended in the fly-space above the heads of the actors, mirroring the action below. The point of the designer’s visual metaphor, the original playwright’s socialist theme and Verdi’s psychological commentary may be lost on modern audience members who have not researched thoroughly beforehand, but the engineering spectacle still has aesthetic impact. The severe, stripped-back, monochromatic visual world is sustained over the entire length of the opera, with the only reprieve from the enclosed square of cold, hard, reflective black surfaces being a few dull green chairs, but this only serves to clarify the work, characters and relationships, making them transparent.
While the opera might be large in scale and the score grand in scope, its dramatic centre is quite small – it ultimately comes down to just six characters and their relationships. This intimacy is heightened by the stylised Greek chorus, which pops in and out, commenting on the people involved without ever becoming part of the action or driving it in any meaningful way. The chorus endlessly circles the stage, drawing a claustrophobic focus on the principals in the centre. Their gait is somber, death-march-like, they remain largely in the shadows, and their singing tone is dark and foreboding. Dressed head to toe in formal black-tie, the men holding large candles and the women bouquets of lilies, their role seems to be to portend the opera’s bloody conclusion. In fact, Del Monaca makes the entire work into an elongated funeral for its tragic heroine Luisa, who from beginning to end is dressed in flowing white in contrast to the black evening gowns and coattails, and who in her first appearance onstage is lying asleep bowered by a frame of white roses, a mournful image which transforms her literal bed into her deathbed. By extension, the production can be seen as a funeral for not just Luisa, but for idyllic familial domesticity, as the two sets of father-child relationships and the lovers all descend into doom.
This production features some of the best vocal performances I’ve seen this opera season. The standard is remarkably high across the board, with not a weak link amongst the principal cast. Out front, as the hellishly abused Luisa, is Nicole Car in what is unbelievably her first Verdi role – a role which seems both vocally and dramatically tailor-made for her. As an actor, Car’s warm stage persona captures the essence of her gentle, pitiful character and lends full weight and a sense of truth to the abuse she suffers. As a singer, she owns every note, striking the perfect balance between darkness and brilliance, with a rich, ringing resonance that she keeps under perfect control. She manages to both pull back when necessary to pick out a staccato coloratura line with subtlety and elegance and to pull out all the stops for climactic moments, unleashing magnificent force with superabundant amplitude to soar over the orchestra, over the chorus and even over and above her fellow singers, no matter how booming the bass.
Slovakian baritone Dalibor Jenis delivers a glorious performance as Luisa’s father. He cuts a sympathetic figure and his acting has the ring of truth, but it is his voice, with its heroic upper register, creamy legato and powerful tone, coloured by just a hint of age, which really delights. He delivers his aria, which translates “The choice of a husband is sacred”, with subtle control and refined finish, and it is this individual song, as well as his duet with his daughter, and the several trios with the pair of lovers, that make up the most engaging and memorable moments of the opera.
As Rodolfo, a bit of a wild histrionic, Diego Torre turns in an exciting performance and manages to make his character believable. In that famous aria, his top notes are consistently golden, and whilst his secure tenor never cracks, he imbues his voice with pain and distress. Torre’s voice is substantial and robust, but he scales it back with considerable sensitivity, intensifying in force as the action progresses to a powerful climax. His final duet with Car is truly gripping, despite the fact that the outcome has been predetermined from the outset.
A peculiarity of Verdi operas is the behemothic duets he wrote for a matched pair of basses, usually both wicked. The bass duet in Luisa Miller is a real treat. American Raymond Aceto and his Australian counterpart, Daniel Sumegi, play the respective roles of vile henchmen Count Walter and Wurm. Aceto sings the role of Rodolfo’s father with authoritative firmness both in voice and presence, but with a subtlety and occasional warmth of tone that brings an intriguing complexity to his character. Wurm’s villainy is far lass subtle, being basically nominally determinative, and hence Sumegi’s unremitting, cavernous bass, with its thuggish, brick-like tone, suitably conjures an implacable malice.
Indeed, productions of Luisa Miller don’t come along all that often. It’s been years since it’s been seen in Sydney. Opera Australia took a risk putting such an unknown number on the program for 2016, but it is a risk that has paid off supremely. Watching this new production feels like discovering a rare and hidden gem. It is an opportunity not to be missed, as it’s likely not to be soon repeated. Luisa Miller is showing at Sydney Opera House until 29 February.
– Alicia Tripp
Alicia is the Theatre Specialist for The Plus Ones, reviewing the premiere concerts, symphonies, operas, ballets and stage shows in Sydney. She is a seasoned arts and music critic, as a former journalist for the ABC Limelight magazine and State of the Arts. She has a degree in Media & Communications, English and Music from the University of Sydney.
Disclaimer: The Plus Ones were invited guests of Opera Australia