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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Luisa Miller - tragic melodrama in three acts (1849)
Count Walter, local landowner - Bonaldo Giaiotti (bass); Rodolfo, Count Walter’s son - Placido Domingo (ten); Frederica, Duchess of Ostheim and Walter’s niece - Jean Kraft (mezzo); Wurm, Count Walter’s steward - James Morris (bass); Miller, a retired soldier - Sherrill Milnes (bar); Luisa, Miller’s daughter - Renata Scotto (sop)
Metropolitan Opera Chorus
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra/James Levine.
Production by Nathaniel Merrill. Set designs by Attilio Colonnello. Costume design by Charles Caine
Video director: Kirk Browning; Audio Producer: John F. Pfeiffer
rec. live, Metropolitan Opera, New York, 20 January 1979
Plus Bonus artists discussion
Picture format: NTSC/Colour/4:3
Sound formats: PCM Stereo. DTS 5.1. DOLBY digital 5.1
Menu language: English.
Subtitles in Italian (original language), English, German, French, Spanish and Chinese.
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 073 4027 [148:00 + 12:00]
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Luisa Miller came at the end of what Verdi referred to as his anni de galera or years in the galleys. It was a period when he was always racing against time. Whilst composing one opera, he was planning the subjects of others and supervising, often in minute detail, the writing of the librettos of another one or two. Added to those pressures were negotiations with impresarios and publishers for operas to follow. In Part 2 of my Verdi conspectus, I deal in detail with the ten operas that he composed in the five years between I due Foscari (1844) and Luisa Miller (1849). In 1847 he had signed a contract to compose an opera for Naples. He then spent the next two years trying one pretext or another to withdraw from it.  He particularly resented the restrictive nature of the Neapolitan censors in respect of the more interesting subjects that appealed to him as a basis for an opera. The political unrest in Europe in 1848 gave him the perfect excuse he wanted and he wrote to the San Carlo breaking off his contract. But it was not to be got rid of that easily. As the Austrians re-took control in the north after the insurgency in Rome and elsewhere, the status quo returned. The San Carlo blamed Cammarano for failing to provide a libretto and threatened to sue and imprison him. With a wife and six children to support, Cammarano wrote to Verdi begging him to renew his Naples contract; for his librettist’s sake the composer did so.
For the new Naples opera Verdi stipulated that the work should be ‘a brief drama of interest, action and above all feeling’. He also wanted something spectacular to suit the size of the San Carlo and proposed an opera based on ‘The Siege of Florence’. The Naples censor, as might be expected, would have none of it. Cammarano suggested Schiller’s ‘Kabale und Liebe’ (Intrigue and love), the last of his early prose plays, noting there was ‘no rebellion, or the rhetoric of Die Rauber’, the Schiller source of I Masnadieri, the Verdi opera written for London. Cammarano, expert in dealing with the censors of his native city, took care to eliminate the political and social overtones of Schiller’s play with its story of innocence destroyed by corruption and the machinations of those in power. In Cammarano’s hands, subtly manipulated by the composer, Schiller’s play became Luisa Miller, Verdi’s fifteenth opera. It was premiered at the San Carlo on 8 December 1849.
Verdi might originally have wanted something spectacular for the San Carlo; what he and Cammarano hatched was an intense personal drama. In parts of La battaglia di Legnano, Verdi’s previous opera, the composer had learned how to express intimate emotions in his music. In Luisa Miller he takes this skill a quantum leap forward together with a new concentration of lyrical elements, achieved by the avoidance of excessive use of brass and timpani. Instead, the plaintive woodwind tones give character to the more intimate pastoral nature of the early scenes in particular. The individual characters are filled out musically and encompass the varying emotions they have to convey which differ significantly in the three acts. It is in the music of the last act where scholars and musicologists suggest that Verdi really breaks new ground and shows himself compositionally ready for the subjects of the later great operas.
It is often said of La Traviata that the three acts require the eponymous soprano to have three different voices: a lyric coloratura in act one, a full lyric voice in act two and a spinto voice in the final act. Exactly the same could be said about Luisa Miller, except perhaps that the coloratura of act one are not as demanding as in Traviata. In this 1979 Met performance the role of Luisa is sung by Renata Scotto who had made an early international impact substituting for Callas in La Sonnambula at the Edinburgh Festival in 1957. She quickly gained a reputation as a singing actress and her early recordings were in the lyric soprano fach. In the 1970s she sang the verismo repertoire as well as Verdi and Puccini, losing some of her vocal lightness in the process, but never her histrionic ability to convey the emotions of a character. So it is in this performance directed by Nathaniel Merrill with period costumes and in traditional, if somewhat over-elaborate, cluttered and ornate sets, designed by Attilio Colonnello. In act one scene one (CHs.3-10), Scotto’s petite figure and acting convince the watcher of a young girl in love. She lightens her tone whilst bringing character to her singing and any slight hardening of tone quickly passes. The camera avoids too many close-ups that would, despite her small rounded face, have betrayed her forty odd years. In act two, scene one, as she hears of her father’s imprisonment and is confronted by Wurm’s threats (CHs. 23-26). Scotto’s singing and acting make the desired dramatic impact. But it is in act three that she reveals her full vocal strengths and acting ability. First in the magnificent Verdian duet with her father (CHs. 37-39), and then as she is tricked by Rodolfo into joining him by taking poison and dies (CHs. 40-43). Scotto has the necessary vocal heft for these dramatic scenes. More importantly she also has the ability to characterise and give meaning to the words via vocal colour and nuance, although she does have to resort to some heavy chest register at times. Her interpretation fully justifies the reception she gets at the end and also the issue of this rather dated performance onto DVD.
All the men sing strongly, none more so than Domingo who, already with several performances of Otello under his belt, sings with dramatic impetus, lyrical tone and ardour. Rodolfo gets the only big tune of the opera that has made it onto recitals Quando le sere al placido (Ch. 32), which he sings with good expression, phrasing and characterisation. Throughout, his acting is committed and convincing, although I suspect that he would have liked to have dispensed with his over-ornate wig. Excess wig hair and make-up apart, Sherrill Milnes is equally convincing as Luisa’s father. He sings with strong even tone, fine legato and a real sense of Verdian line, which is something James Morris as the evil scheming Wurm lacks. Bonaldo Giaiotti sings steadily with good tone as Count Walter, but is far too generalised in his acting and vocal characterisation. He might have been singing Padre Giardano in La Forza del Destino or Zaccaria in Nabucco. He fails to convince as Count Walter whose evil deed, and aspirations for his son, set the events of the play and opera in motion. As the Duchess Frederica, whom Walter wishes his son to marry, Jean Kraft sings adequately but looks far too old even for the excessively bewigged Rodolfo!
I have referred to the rather over-done sets. Despite my reservations I prefer these to a producer’s concept that buries Verdi’s intentions in silly ideas and the odd block or cube around the stage. Levine’s conducting is vibrant without being overpowering in Verdi’s intimate scenes. The picture quality is not up to the latest standards with the colours lacking sharpness and lens distortion sometimes evident. Despite those limitations I welcome this issue. It is not only the first availability of this Met performance in any medium, but also to the best of my knowledge, the first performance of Luisa Miller on DVD (see note below). Its limitations leave room for the very picturesque 1978 Covent Garden performance, which forms the basis of the audio recording conducted by Maazel (DG 459 481) and any other production of quality that may come along. Any contemporary production would, however, find it difficult to match the singing in this performance, or that at Covent Garden, with today’s dearth of great Verdi voices.
Robert J Farr

Editor's Note - there is another Luisa Miller available on DVD, though Region 1/NTSC only, a 1988 Lyon recording, featuring June Anderson in the title role, and conducted by Maurizio Arena (Kultur D0030).


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