Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) is one of the greats of Italian opera. Best known for Aida and as the composer of the dramatic music for The X Factor. Translated into English his name is Joseph Green. He is the man who sexed up opera. Bringing in adultery, rape, prostitution and violence. Searching for a vehicle that would allow him to explore the power struggles within society on the domestic level Verdi hit upon the idea of adapting Schiller’s play Intrigue and Love (1874). This had the added advantage of giving him cover to pretend that he was not offending the Italian aristocracy, the church or Fathers. But of course, he was. He teamed up with the librettist Salvatore Cammarano ( 1801-1852) best known for Lucia di Lammermoor and together they wrote Luisa Miller, which opened in Naples on the 8th December 1849. Although not one of his most well-known operas Luisa Miller still has the power to hold an audience. It’s a romantic tragedy full of searing psychological drama and in Barbora Horáková’s version, it certainly packs a punch or two.
Visually this production is stunning. Horáková sees the operas as darkness visible and encroaching like coastal erosion. This vision pervades every aspect of the production from the set to the costumes and the props. The set is a black cuboid void into which white walls come and go like the tide. But always the darkness returns. And with each iteration, it grows more menacing and encompassing. Onto these white walls, black paint drips like an Aubrey Beardsley ink drawing or a Jackson Pollock all over drip painting. The chorus half-naked smear black blood all over themselves and the walls. The centrepiece of the set is an adjustable black frame. This frame can be interpreted as a house, church, cage, picture frame or the brain. Always the black void encroaches and always the white space diminishes. It’s a powerful and disconcerting vision, brilliantly realised by designers Andrew Lieberman, Eva-Maria Van Acker and Michael Bauer.
Verdi found the perfect equivalent for his critique of society in his micro-focus on the family. For the family was (is?) the foundation of the state. The state if you like in miniature, with all power in the hands of the father. The father is the dictator. His word is law. He decides who you will marry. Luisa Miller explores the consequences for two young lovers, Luisa and Rodolfo when they say no to their parents. The Romeo and Juliet revolution, the individual decides who to love, comes up against patriarchal tradition, family honour, the church and inheritance. Verdi has hit on the perfect dramatic dilemma. The cast, conductor and orchestra bring these conflicts and clashes thrillingly to life. It’s a strong cast. I was impressed with every singer. Christine Rice as the Duchess is excellent. She succeeds in showing us her pain. James Creswell is convincing as the implacable father who insists that his son will do as he commands. Soloman Howard (Wurm) is a giant both physically and vocally. Dressed all in black with a hideous mask he scared the hell out of me. Olafur Sigurdarson as Luisa’s father gets the balance just right between overprotective yet simultaneously self-serving manipulation of Luisa.
The love duet with his daughter in Act 3, La figlia vedi, pentita’ captures this ambivalence perfectly. Clearly we are having a Korean moment. What with the Tottenham Hotspur star striker Son Heung-min, K POP and the Oscar-winning film Parasite. We can add to that list David Junghoon Kim. He sang Rodolfo superbly. His phrasing and clarity were flawless. Luisa herself was sung with astonishing sensitivity and vocal range by the sublime Elizabeth Llewellyn. Look out for her entrance aria ‘Lo vidi, e’l primo palpito,’ it will give you palpitations aplenty. The conductor Alexander Joel is my kind of guy. No fancy hand waving and showing off – just precise and calm directions to his players, all the while with an eagle eye on the singers on stage. He never missed a trick. He was always on time. He was calmness and control personified.
Review by John O’Brien
Verdi’s Luisa Miller is a complex web of love, intrigue and oppressive familial relationships, centred on the doomed love between Luisa and Rodolfo.
From opposing sides of the class divide Luisa and Rodolfo are united by their search for happiness. When Rodolfo’s father arranges for his son to make a politically beneficial marriage, their dreams of being together begin to unravel with ultimately tragic consequences.
Revealing the composer’s innate gift for beautifully fashioned lyrical lines and sensitive orchestration, Luisa Miller (1849) points the way to the great flowering of Verdi’s art in the 1850s, with works such as La traviata and Rigoletto, both staged recently at ENO.
Alexander Joel – Conductor
Barbora Horáková – Director
Andrew Lieberman – Set Designer
Eva-Maria Van Acker – Costume Designer
Martin Fitzpatrick – Translator
Michael Bauer – Lighting Designer
James Rosental – Choreographer
Elizabeth Llewellyn – Luisa
Olafur – Sigurdarson – Miller
David Junghoon Kim – Rodolfo
James Cresswell – Count Walter
Christine Rice – Federica
Soloman Howard – Wurm
Shattering childhood dreams can break a life. Watch the drama unfold in Verdi’s complex opera.
15 Feb – 6 Mar 2020