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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Luisa Miller - Tragic melodrama in three acts (1849)
Count Walter, local landowner - Giorgio Surian (bass); Rodolfo, Count Walter’s son - Marcelo Álvarez (tenor); Frederica, Duchess of Ostheim and Walter’s niece - Francesca Franci (mezzo); Wurm, Count Walter’s steward - Rafal Siwek (bass); Miller, a retired soldier - Leo Nucci (baritone); Luisa, Miller’s daughter - Fiorenca Cedolins (soprano); Laura, Luisa’s friend - Katarina Nikolic (mezzo)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro Regio, Parma/Donato Renzetti
Stage Director, Set and Costume Designer: Denis Krief
Video Director: Andrea Dorigo
rec. live, Parma Verdi Festival, 20, 22 October 2007
Sound Formats: DTS-HD MA 5.1; PCM Stereo. Filmed in HD 1080i; Aspect ratio 16:9
Booklet languages: English, German, French
Subtitles: Italian (original language), English, German, French, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Japanese
C MAJOR 722904 [147:00 +10:00 bonus] 

This recording is numbered fourteen in C Major’s Tutto Verdi series of all twenty-six of Verdi’s operas, plus his Requiem Mass. The series marks the bicentenary of the birth of Italy’s most celebrated composer. Not included are two additional titles to that twenty-six: Jérusalem and Aroldo. These are re-writes of earlier operas using some of the original music. The former derives from I Lombardi (see review), the composer’s fourth opera. Written to a French libretto for the Paris Opera it can well be considered a distinct work. In sequence it follows between I Masnadieri (see review) numbered eleven in this series and Il Corsaro (see review). All the issues in the series are available on DVD as well as Blu-Ray.
Luisa Miller is based on the play Kabale und Liebe by Friedrich von Schiller. It came at the end of what Verdi referred to as his anni de galera (years in the galleys), when it seemed to him that 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 1847 Verdi 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 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 of the peninsula after the brief 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 wanted the work to 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 in the contemporary political milieu 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 class 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. It was premiered at the San Carlo on 8 December 1849.
What Verdi 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 - effects achieved by the avoidance of excessive use of brass and timpani. Instead, the plaintive woodwind tones gives 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 soon to flow from his pen.
With this production, shared with Turin and Modena, the Parma Verdi Festival moved its time of year to October and presented three of the composer’s operas as well as his Requiem. In the case of Luisa Miller, the director updates most, but not all, the costumes to around the end of the nineteenth century whilst the sets are more modern. Notably, an abstract geometrically-patterned glittering drop represents Count Walter’s home. Wooden walls portray ex-soldier Miller’s home with simple table and chairs. Incongruities come, for example, when Luisa writes and signs the fatal letter stating that she never really loved Rodolfo using a nineteen-fifties fountain pen. Whatever the set and costume quirks, they do not inhibit the dramatic and lyrical interpretation of this transitional work and the emergence of the tragic story. This owes much to the superb musical direction of Donato Renzetti on the rostrum and the singing of the two main protagonists and the chorus.
If, as here, the orchestra and chorus are functioning well under a sympathetic conductor, and the principals in the main romantic interest are on top form, then any directorial quirks can be overlooked. This is very much the case in this performance. In the eponymous role, Fiorenca Cedolins in on top form, her singing secure and her acting particularly convincing. This is an opera, unlike several of the performances earlier in the series, where there are very competitive alternatives not least from Renata Scotto from New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 1979 in what I described as a somewhat over-elaborate, cluttered and ornate sets (see review). In this plainer production, Fiorenca Cedolins has to work harder to create Luisa’s changed circumstances in the three acts. She does so whilst accommodating the varied vocal demands. Not unlike La Traviata these vary significantly between the three acts. In act one she assays the light-hearted lover’s coloratura with security. In the taut drama of act two, as she faces Wurm and his demands (CHs.20-24), her vocal variety of tone takes on new hues. We hear a superb Tu puniscimo, o Signore (CH.22). In the final act her vocal and acted portrayal of Luisa’s agonies reaches its apotheosis and is a match for her distinguished compatriot. This includes both the duet with her father (CHs.34-36) and her final death alongside Rodolfo (CHs.37-41).
As Luisa’s suitor Rodolfo, Marcelo Álvarez sings with pleasing lyric tone whilst also having the necessary vocal heft for the most dramatic outbursts without deterioration in vocal quality or expressiveness. Welcome too is his ability to sing softly and ardently, as the situation requires. His rendition of the famous Quando le sere al placido in act two (CH.30) is as good as you are likely to hear from any contemporary tenor in its variety of tone, expressiveness and phrasing. With his pronounced jowls he is not visually in the same league as Domingo who partners Scotto, but better voice than looks for repeated hearings.
Of the other male roles, prime consideration must be given to Leo Nucci as Luisa’s father, the retired and ageing Miller. In his sixty-fifth year at the time of this performance Nucci is certainly ageing. I have never been overly fond of his somewhat wiry baritone finding his voice lacking the variety of vocal colours of his compatriot Cappuccilli. Where he beats the latter by a mile is as an acted and vocal characteriser. This is evident as he sings, without vocal strain, wobble or spread in the father-daughter duet of act three (CHs.34-36) and in the scene with Wurm (CHs.6-9). Whilst he lacks the vocal mellifluousness of Sherrill Milnes under Levine his overall interpretation is good. Of the two basses, Giorgio Surian as Walter the local aristocrat sings without much grace and with some lack of steadiness, limiting his acting to tilting his head. In comparison, Rafal Siwek as the manipulative Wurm, sings with vocal steadiness and creates an almost saturnine portrayal of evil as he pursues Luisa to marry him. Regrettably, I find little pleasure in his far from ingratiating vocal tone - it lacks variety of colour or expression. Reverting to the ladies, Francesca Franci creates what she can of the brief role of Frederica whom Walter prefers as Rodolfo’s bride. She looks good in her haute couture scarlet outfit and shapes her aria well. Worthy of mention too is the attractive singing of Katarina Nikolic.
In the history of performed opera the bonus tells that Luisa Miller comes in at thirteenth in the list of performances of Verdi’s operas and one hundred and twenty second overall. The work and performance pleased the Parma audience whose practice of excessive applause until a singer at least bows their head in acknowledgement seems irritating to the performers and certainly is to this viewer.
Robert J Farr