The Coliseum (venue)
15 February 2020 (released)
18 February 2020
Luisa Miller, premiered in 1849, is the opera Verdi wrote before Rigoletto and is now overshadowed by the later masterpiece. When it first opened in London, its producer, Muzio, wrote to Verdi of ‘the immense success of Miller; the top honours went to the music, which caused a great sensation.’
This estimate proves true today. The story may be not be as gripping as other Verdi operas, but the music never fails to delight with some glorious arias from both Luisa Miller herself - sung by the superb soprano, Elizabeth Llewellyn - and her lover Rodolfo - the beautifully smooth tenor, David Junghoon Kim - as well as the wider cast.
There is no doubt that the ENO has done right by Verdi’s music and is to be congratulated in bringing Luisa Miller back to the London stage after a seventeen years interval. The opera is based on a Schiller play, Kabale und Liebe, translated as Intrigue and Love which is indeed the subject of the drama.
Luisa Miller’s father - sung with great strength and feeling by Olafur Sigurdarson - discovers that his daughter is seeing a young man who turns out to the son of the murderous Count Walter – played by James Creswell, using his magnificent bass to powerful effect.
Even though Rodolfo has turned against his father’s wicked ways, Miller senior will not countenance his only daughter’s liaison. Nor will Walter who has ear-marked a rich, widowed duchess, Federica - sung to dazzle by mezzo-soprano, Christine Rice - to be his son’s bride. To make matters more threatening there is Walter’s factotum, Wurm – sung by Soloman Howard whose tremendous base is matched by his body-builder’s physique – and who wants Luisa for himself. Despair, imprisonment and death follow, with the lovers, in fatal misunderstanding, poisoning themselves.
This is an intimate drama about two fathers who cannot let their children make their own futures. In Italy of the time, there were still arranged marriages so it was a live social issue. But it is also about power and class and money. Miller is a retired soldier, living simply in the country. Walter is the equivalent of prime minister to the ruling count. To make the greatest impact, the human story must always be set against the social context.
Director Barbara Horakova’s imaginative interpretation focuses on the story as ‘a modern psychological family drama with themes around light and dark’. She uses a chorus of mocking white-faced clowns and vile creatures who seem to have strayed from Mexico’s ‘Day of the Dead’, supported by demon-like dancers in black who cajole and threaten. All this hyperactivity tends to diminish the ordinary human impact made by the principals.
Nearly as distracting are the white walls around the stage where chorus and principals illustrate their dysfunctional psyches/misery with black slashes of ink, in which poor Rodolfo eventually becomes mired.
There are good ideas; a young girl and boy represent the innocent childhood of Luisa and Rodolfo before the cruel world has crushed them. But even they have a limited appeal and might have been better gradually fading away.
Despite such reservations, it is an exciting evening at the opera, not to be missed by any Verdi fan. Conductor Alexander Joel supports and creates the drama with music that is perfectly attuned to both the most delicate evocations of love and the greatest moments of tragedy.
English National Opera at the Coliseum
By Guiseppi Verdi
Libretto: Salvatore Cammarana
Director: Barbara Harakova
Conductor: Alexander Joel