Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Luisa Miller - Tragic melodrama in three acts (1849)
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 Schippers
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 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 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 (13-14-2012)
Despite theatre cuts by the conductor there is much to please adherents of live performances in this performance of this transitional work.