Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Luisa Miller - Tragic melodrama in three
Count Walter, local landowner – Giorgio Tozzi (bass); Rodolfo, Count Walter’s son – Richard Tucker (tenor); Frederica, Duchess of Ostheim and Walter’s niece – Louise Pearl (mezzo); Wurm, Count Walter’s steward – Ezio Flagello (bass); Miller, a retired soldier – Sherrill Milnes (baritone); Luisa, Miller’s daughter – Montserrat Caballé (soprano)
Chorus and Orchestra of The Metropolitan Opera, New York/Thomas
rec. live, mono, 17 February 1968
SONY CLASSICAL 88691 90994 2 [66.54 + 62.54]
In 1951, a good few years before this recording a young guy
called Allen Sven Oxenberg founded The American Opera Society
with the intention of bringing, in concert, rare repertoire
to New York audiences. He provided his audiences with the premieres
of many works they had never heard before such as Medea,
Giovanni d’Arco, Les Troyens and even Billy
Budd. When Callas, boycotted by the Met brought bel canto
to New York it was in 1958 to Oxenberg’s audience with Bellini’s
Il Pirata for its American debut. Overnight the AOS
became New York’s principal purveyor of star operatic attractions.
In February 1962, he further upstaged the Met with Sutherland’s
debut in the city singing the eponymous role in Bellini’s long
forgotten Beatrice di Tenda. Sutherland was later joined
by emerging American mezzo Marilyn Horne, the two singing Rossini’s
rarely heard Semiramide for the Society, and after
which Oxenberg sought a suitable role for Horne alone to star.
He settled on the title role in Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia.
Horne, in something of a vocal identity crisis and having problems
with her ongoing advanced pregnancy, and with all tickets sold,
withdrew from the title role with only weeks to go to the Carnegie
Hall performance scheduled for 20th April 1965.
In some desperation Oxenberg talked to the agent Bernard Delfont
who suggested a Spanish soprano who he had recently heard in
Lausanne. Her name was Montserrat Caballé. Caballé’s biographers
(Robert Pullen and Stephen Taylor. Indigo 1996 pp101 et seq)
tell the raging success of the soprano’s performance, and its
aftermath, in New York and around the operatic world. Caballé
went from an unknown to the front page, as well as the arts
pages, of the next day’s New York papers. Bing asked her to
name her price and what she wished to sing for her debut in
the Met. Whilst she later returned to the American Opera
Society in a series of bel canto sequels it was at the
Met that she really wowed the audiences starting with the production
from which this performance is taken. The production, the first
at the Met since 1936, was specially mounted for Caballé’s debut.
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.
Verdi composed ten operas in the hectic five years between I
due Foscari (1844) and Luisa Miller (1849).
At a time of political unrest in Europe the Naples censor, where
Verdi’s new opera was to be premiered, would have nothing to
do with sieges and the like as first suggested. Cammarano, a
native of Naples, 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 15th opera.
It was premiered at the San Carlo on December 8th
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 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 and 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
great operas that were shortly to flow from his pen.
Compared with my reviewed performances from this series of Il
Trovatore recorded in February 1961, both taken from official
transfers of Met broadcasts, there are two important improvements.
First conductor Schippers is not as savage with his cuts. The
total timing here is 129 minutes compared with the 144 on the
Decca 1975 studio recording and 137 on the Arts issue recorded
in Turin the year before (see review)
and both of which feature Montserrat Caballé in the title role.
Secondly the quality of recording is far superior to that Il
Trovatore and much more so than the pirated versions that
have circulated of this performance.
The focus in this performance must be on Caballé singing. Her
biographers reveal that after the premiere she contracted a
severe cold with a temperature. Hearing of this, the renowned
Italian diva Renata Tebaldi, scheduled to sing La Gioconda,
referred her to her own doctor and spent days with Caballe personally
dosing her with medication (op cit pp395-6). Whatever she dosed
Caballe with, it worked, and the Spanish diva is in good voice
throughout, whether in extolling the virtues of her lover to
her father (CD 1 Trs 2-3), declaring her love to the man himself
(Tr.4), in duets with her father (CD 2 Tr.8-11), standing up
to the bullying Wurm in act two (Trs.15-19) or facing the outcome
of her fated love in act three (Trs 12-17). Compared with the
later recordings referred to Caballe sings with a more natural
rather than a manufactured vocal lightness particularly evident
in the more pastoral and gentle episodes with her trill and
famous pianissimos evident. I cannot but agree with Caballé’s
biographers that Luisa was one of the soprano’s greatest roles
and is well caught I this live performance.
Richard Tucker as Luisa’s lover, at age fifty four, is strong
toned without recourse to the vulgar outpourings that some of
her tenor partners were prone to, sings with lyrical tone and
some elegant phrasing in the famous aria Quando le sere
in placido (CD2 Tr.6). Sherrill Milnes, in one of his earliest
Met roles, is smooth and elegant in his singing and creates
a loving and sympathetic, if ultimately desperate, father. As
the villain Wurm, Ezio Flagello is strong and sonorous and creates
a viable character via varied tonal colour and modulation. He
is well contrasted tonally by a quietly impressive Giorgio Tozzi
as the Count. The Federica of Louise Pearl does not do Verdi’s
writing, or the role, justice.
Robert J Farr
See also review by Ralph