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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Luisa Miller - tragic melodrama in three acts (1849)
Count Walter, local landowner – Raffaele Arié (bass); Rodolfo, Count Walter’s son – Luciano Pavarotti (tenor); Frederica, Duchess of Ostheim and Walter’s niece – Cristina Angelakova (mezzo); Wurm, Count Walter’s steward – Ferruccio Mazzoli (bass); Miller, a retired soldier – Matteo Manuguerra (baritone); Luisa, Miller’s daughter – Gilda Cruz Roma (soprano)
Chorus and Orchestra Sinfonica RAI di Torino/Peter Maag
rec. live, RAI auditorium, Turin. 6 December 1974. ADD
ARTS MUSIC - ARTS ARCHIVES 43088-2 [57.07 + 79.40]

Recording of the Month

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 background and various recorded performances of the ten operas that he composed in the hectic five years between I due Foscari (1844) and Luisa Miller (1849).

In 1847 Verdi had signed a contract to compose an opera for Naples. He then spent the next two years trying on one pretext or another to withdraw from it. He particularly resented the restrictive nature of the Neapolitan censors who tended to embargo the more interesting subjects that appealed to him. Verdi thought the political unrest in Europe in 1848 gave him the perfect excuse he wanted and 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 of Italy after the insurgency in Rome and elsewhere, the political status quo returned. The San Carlo blamed Verdi’s attitude on Cammarano for failing to provide a suitable libretto for the composer and threatened to sue and imprison him. With a wife and six children to support, Cammarano wrote to Verdi begging him to fulfil his Naples contract; for his librettists 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 he might have expected, would have nothing to do with sieges and the like. Cammarano suggested Schiller’s ‘Kabale und Liebe’ (Intrigue and love), the last of his early prose plays, noting that there was ‘no rebellion, or the rhetoric of Die Rauber’, in 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.

Whilst Verdi might originally have wanted something spectacular for the San Carlo, what he and Cammarano actually hatched was an intense personal drama. In parts of La battaglia di Legnano, Verdi’s previous opera, the composer had learnt how to express intimate emotions. In Luisa Miller he takes this skill a quantum leap forward together and adds 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. The individual characters are filled out musically and encompass the varying emotions they have to convey which differ significantly across the three acts. It is in the music of the last act where scholars and musicologists suggest that Verdi breaks new ground and shows himself compositionally ready for the subjects of the great operas that were shortly to flow from his pen.

Despite the maturity of the composition - after all it preceded Rigoletto, the first of Verdi’s great middle period trilogy, by a mere fifteen months - the work is only rarely seen on the stage. Recordings are even more sparse. New York’s Metropolitan Opera has featured the work more than most. Performances there provided the stimulus for the first stereo recording in 1964 featuring Bergonzi alongside the ultra lyric Anna Moffo as Luisa (RCA GD 86646), the 1979 DVD version (Review) as well as the basis of the 1991 CD recording (Sony. NLA). Both the latter feature Placido Domingo as Rodolfo and James Levine and the Metropolitan orchestra and chorus. Decca took their contracted tenor, Luciano Pavarotti, into the studio in 1975 surrounding him with an international cast of Montserrat Caballé, who had been Luisa at the Met in 1968, and Sherrill Milnes as her father. Pavarotti’s father features in the minor tenor role of Un contadino (a peasant) all under the baton of Peter Maag the conductor of this live performance made in Turin six months before that studio recording.

The accompanying booklet suggests that being aware of Pavarotti’s scheduled performances alongside Caballé at La Scala, RAI cast the Mexican Gilda Cruz Roma as Luisa. I heard her in the theatre on a number of occasions and was impressed, as I am in this performance, by her warm tone and vocal agility as well as her secure vocal production and legato. She makes a thoroughly convincing Luisa, light-toned and carefree in act 1 and dramatically expressive in Luisa’s fraught duet with her father in act 3 (Trs. 10-11). As Miller, Luisa’s father, Matteo Manuguerra sings strongly with tightly focused tone and firm voice. If he hasn’t quite the vocal suavity and mellifluousness of Milnes on the studio recording he is a considerable Verdi baritone and conveys the many aspects of Miller’s character and dilemmas with no little distinction. With the redoubtable Anna Di Stasio relegated to the minor role of Laura, a village girl, I was impressed by the rich tones of Cristina Angelakova in the important, but small, role of Frederica, Duchess of Ostheim and Count Walter’s niece whom he plans as Rodolfo’s bride. Count Walter, the scheming aristo, is sung by Raffaele Arié who appeared as Raimondo in Callas’s first Lucia (Review) in the mid-1950s. He is still sonorous and generally steady and, importantly, distinct in timbre from his fellow bass Ferruccio Mazzoli as his evil scheming servant Wurm, who sows distrust and terror with good characterisation.

The title of the opera focuses attention on Luisa, but the tenor role might be a truer focus for the title. Pavarotti at the time of this recording was at the peak of his vocal powers before ego, big concerts and too much pasta impinged on his art. He sings ardently with glorious open-voiced tone and a wide range of colour and expression. His dramatic involvement and characterisation cannot be faulted as he moves easily and naturally into the role’s big moment, Quando le sere al placido (CD 2 tr.7). Doubtless in the studio recording there was more than one take. In this account, with his voice fully warm and allied to his dramatic involvement in a live performance, the aria comes across with greater meaning compared with his studio version flowing naturally with and from the evolving drama.

On the rostrum Peter Maag shows a good appreciation of Verdian line and phrase, just as he does on the Decca recording, but the live occasion draws from him a tighter and more dramatic third act in particular. Minor cuts lose about eight minutes from concerted passages compared with the Decca studio recording. The sound has the voices a little more recessed than the forward manner of the studio recording but is otherwise clear and well-balanced. Audience presence and applause is restricted to the end of acts. The booklet has an excellent introductory essay and synopsis in English, German, French and Italian. Regrettably, the track-listing is not extended into the synopsis, and more particularly, the complete libretto in Italian.

Robert J Farr


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