THE Joan Sutherland theatre at Sydney Opera House was packed to the rafters last night for a rare opportunity to view a little-known Verdi opera, “Luisa Miller.”
Based on a play by German dramatist Friedrich Schiller, the opera was a brief hit at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples when it opened in 1849, since which it has largely been confined to the pages of operatic history.
In 2014 the Opera de Lausanne in Switzerland revived the work in a 1930s-themed production designed by William Orlandi and it is that production to which Australian operagoers were treated last night in what Opera Australia is billing as a “first ever” for them.
It has become something of a cliché that Australian audiences only like operas of which they can hum the tunes, so this adventure by OA (although they’re only risking it for a two-week season) is a fascinating experiment, especially coming so close to last year’s production of Verdi’s “Don Carlos,” so seemingly near so close in subject matter.
“Luisa Miller”, however, is not set in a recognisable historical era and the designer has taken advantage of this fact to create a shimmering black-and-white set that moves 180° to hover above the performers in an oppressive, monumental way. It has to be seen to be believed.
The costumes are drawn from the same black-and-white palette, with the OA chorus clad in the manner of attendees at a funeral, slowly parading around the stage, at one point even interrupting the only famous aria.
According to the program notes this was intended to provide the singers with opportunities for naturalistic acting, but the result is something different, a pervasive and sombre feeling to an opera with a tragic plot hard to equal.
Very briefly, the innocent village girl Luisa Miller (soprano Nicole Car) falls for a young man Carlo (tenor Diego Torre) she assumes to be a commoner, but who turns out to be Rodolfo, the son of the manipulative Count Walter (American bass Raymond Aceto). Luisa’s devoted father Miller, (Slovak baritone Dalibor Jenis) is shocked at the apparent deception but things get worse when the Machiavellian secretary/retainer, Wurm, (Australian bass Daniel Sumegi) who wants Luisa for himself, tells the count about the affair and a violent story ensues. Caught in the crossfire is the sympathetic but colourless Duchess Federica (Sian Pendry). It is much more complicated than that and also involves a cup of water spiked with a poison long acting enough for a great deal of singing until the final curtain comes down.
In the opera there is only one famous aria, “Quando le sere al placido,” where Rodolfo were recalls happy times in the past, but no matter, it might have been otherwise if the work had been revived more often.
Act I sets up the complicated plot and concludes with a magnificent scene involving the chorus and the principals, each of whom has an opportunity to express his or her inner character.
Act II features a series of one-to-one encounters, notably a duet between Luisa and the revolting Wurm, but featuring a remarkable unaccompanied quartet, exquisitely performed.
This is not a great choral opera and we see more of the chorus moving around inexplicably rather than singing. Having said that, that is splendidly done and they bring an unusual staccato quality to much of their music.
All the characters are clearly defined in terms of their moral character. Diego Torre turns in a fiery-hot performance as Rodolfo, full of righteous anger. There were, however, a few titters from the audience as the set seemed to be moving down upon him.
Lacking the traditional bucolic village background, Nicole Car as Luisa is left with the best resource of all, her finely controlled voice that captures every nuance the wronged girl’s experience.
Jenis as Luisa’s father brings a note of complexity to his role, calling to mind another great Verdi baritone role, Germont in la Traviata. The most striking theme in “Luisa Miller” is that of paternal love, and he effectively portrays that in all its facets.
And so to the two basses, Sumegi and Aceto. For although the opera sets out a schematic contrast between good father and evil father, the centre stage belongs to the villains. And what a pair they are. Sumegi hit his straps as the utterly unscrupulous Wurm, quick to plot, quick to hide behind any available piece of furniture and consumed by the basest motives. There’s no false niceness and the audience greeted him at the end with applause and muffled boos.
Count Walter is another character altogether. Acknowledging that he is in the grip of Satan, he is nonetheless motivated by a kind of fatherly love that expresses itself in tyrannical domination. The stage directions from Giancarlo del Monaco (revived by Barbara Staffolani) see him chain-smoking through a series of gambits that eventually bring him down. Bass Raymond Aceto dominates the stage vocally and psychologically, in a manner reminiscent of the scene in “Don Carlos” where King Philip agonises. This is opera at its best.
Who knows what “Luisa Miller” might have been if it had interested Verdi enough for him to tighten and rewrite it? Musically it is a fascinating precursor to greater works, and OA is to be complimented on giving us a cathartic night’s drama and some wonderful singing.