Verdi is a fascinating composer. He notched up twenty-five operas during his long and largely successful career and also managed to live to the grand old age of eighty-seven. It’s quite an achievement when you think how many composers, worn out from the effort of composing and staging operas, suffered poor health and died young. Operas have always been risky financial ventures and imagine having to deal with all those egos and in Verdi’s case, petty officials and censors, in nineteen century Italy. It’s a wonder Verdi survived all of that.
And thank heavens he did, for today we are left with his music. Unapologetically romantic and psychologically true, it is gorgeousness incarnate. Not all his operas were romantic of course. His first operas were powered by ideas of war, revolution and nationhood.
All that changed when he got round to writing Luisa Miller which I attended this week at ENO.
Luisa Miller possesses the Verdian ingredients we love, namely a rich and intelligent musical score, which translates beautifully and minutely, the drama being played out on stage.
As with La Traviata, which came later, Luisa Miller is a story of paternal love with all its potential complications. The story, taken from a play by Schiller*, focuses on the abuse of power by the powerful and their deceit and corruption. But being Verdi, there is compassion and understanding expressed with heartbreaking sensitivity in the music.
The line-up of singers on opening night was impressive. Six leads, and Elizabeth Llewellyn, who was singing Luisa, had the most demanding role of all. Act 1, she was the innocent daughter in love with a man she believed to be called Carlo. Act 11, she was blackmailed and abused. In Act 111 she is contemplating suicide. But all of this, especially the last two acts, was handled with aplomb and great intelligence by Llewellyn. She shone on this opening evening, her caressing soprano voice was particularly effective in scenes with her father, notably when she gives up ideas of suicide and decides to concentrate on him.
Memorable too were her moments on stage with Wurm, her blackmailer, brilliantly played and sung by relative newcomer and rising star, Soloman Howard. The scenes with him, were beautifully complex, Wurm, devilish, tall, seductive, almost too much so – was the perfect devil. Howard’s enunciation was also quite perfect. Every word in his beautiful bass, came out loud and clear.
The other male leads were equally outstanding. David Junghoon Kim, Korean tenor, has already won a prestigious singing award since his graduation from the Jette Parker Young Artist programme at Royal Opera. From Act 11 onwards, his Italianate tenor really took off. His phrasing was quite perfect – and he produced great pianissimo. However he still needs to work on his body language, which, at times, seemed at odds with the emotions he was conveying.
Much is demanded of tenors in opera. They are to shine, to be in love and tormented at once. Torment they can do, often, over do! Jonas Kaufmann however, is one of the few tenors, who really can pull off the lover so naturally around a woman. I’m hoping however that the young generation will produce some staggeringly good lovers in opera. Sean Panikkar, who I saw sing Don José in Carmen at ENO recently, is looking promising. I do hope Junghoon Kim develops the skill too, even if it means concentrating a little less on perfect vocals for a while.
As for the fathers, their characters were well delineated – Miller, Luisa’s father, sung by Olafur Sigurdarson, had that perfect dogged, old soldierly quality to his baritone. James Creswell meanwhile, was authentic as Rodolfo’s father, Walter. Not a pantomime baddie, far from that. Shoulders back, chest out, he had great economy of movement, impenetrable, an oak tree with dark secrets in his roots. It was only when a trembling young man wrapped in polythene was laid at his feet, did the audience suddenly sit up in their seats!
Much has been said in the papers and online of Barbora Horáková’s stage direction. Some critics have found her staging of Luisa Miller ham-fisted.
Originally set in the Tyrol in the first half of the eighteenth century, this ENO production is transposed to what seems to be a German capital, Berlin, I assume, judging by the amount of graffiti on the walls of the stage and ball-headed nihilists in leather shorts, taking the role of dancers on stage.
The audience reads the name “Wurm” sprayed all over the white set in black paint. It is the German for ‘worm’ of course, perfect for the character who wriggles his way in and out of the people’s lives on stage, ruining their hopes and gnawing away at any moral fibre they may possess. The graffiti, reminiscent of fascist slogans, suggests that this opera might be a political drama which it isn’t. For me however, Wurm, as a metaphor of all that is bad, in this case, the fathers’ wishes to control, worked.
What didn’t work however was the complete lack of social context. In the libretto, Miller, Luisa’s father, is supposed to be a financially-strapped, retired soldier. Walter, Rodopho’s father, meanwhile is a count and opposed to his son marrying a girl from a humble background. On the stage there was nothing to suggest poverty in the MIller’s home. True the buildings in the opera are minimalist, represented by a black frame, which expands and contracts according to the scene. But this was too subtle. It wouldn’t have mattered hadn’t Miller sung the aria of escape and destitution: ‘We will make our way in poverty .. from town to town,’ he sings Act 11 when he is forced to go on the run with Luisa. It is sung so poignantly and seemed so significant at this point in the story that I would have liked more support from the set.
But these are just quibbles. There was so much that worked with the direction too. With judicious lighting, Wurm seemed to meld with the set, or be unrecognisable, which was most unnerving.
Really an impressive production by ENO. The chorus and support singers, like the wonderful Nadine Benjamin, were the silken bows and ribbons to what was already a remarkable ENO offering.
Don’t miss the opportunity to see such a remarkable collection of singers under the same roof!
*Christoph Friedrich Schiller – leading German dramatist, poet, and literary theorist 1759-1805.
On at English National Opera: February 19th, 21st, 28th & March 6th at 19.30, February15th at 18.30pm