Luisa Miller is not one of Verdi’s most-performed operas, and it’s been many years since this gem of a domestic tragedy has been seen in Sydney. It follows Luisa (Nicole Car), the daughter of a retired soldier (Dalibor Jenis), who has fallen desperately in love with a young man she knows as Carlo (Diego Torre). Luisa’s father is suspicious of the relationship given that Carlo is a complete stranger, and when he discovers that Carlo is in fact Rodolfo, the son of Count Walter (Raymond Aceto), he becomes incensed.
At the same time, Count Walter discovers that Rodolfo intends to marry Luisa. But Walter doesn’t see Luisa as a suitable match for his son and will do whatever he can to ensure that Rodolfo marries the widowed duchess, Federica (Sian Pendry).
The opera has a fine libretto by Salvatore Cammarano, based on Schiller’s play Kabale und Liebe. Perhaps its the intimacy of the plot that has prevented this story from entering the pantheon of Verdi’s most frequently performed operas. It’s certainly not the score — while it mightn’t be as fully evolved as, say, Il Trovatore, Rigoletto or La Traviata (all written within the four years after Luisa Miller), there’s both a broad and dark dramatic sweep in this score and fine attention to detail. And the musical highlights are very high indeed, from the famous tenor aria Quando le sere al placid, to a stunning acapella quartet in the second act.
While the opera might be large in scale, its dramatic centre is quite small, and it ultimately comes down to just six characters and their relationships. It’s true that there’s plenty for the chorus to sing, but mostly they act as a kind of Greek chorus, popping in and out of the action, commenting on the people involved without ever becoming part of the action or driving it in any meaningful way.
This production, directed by Giancarlo del Monaco in a co-production between Opera Australia and Switzerland’s Opera de Lausanne, sees the chorus constantly circling a shining black surface, dressed head to toe in formal black clothing. They march solemnly, the men holding large candles and the women with bouquets of lilies; their funeral march presaging the opera’s bloody conclusion.
The set, designed by William Orlandi, features a large platform covered in white marble figurines. During the overture, it slowly rises up into the fly space of the theatre on a track, turning upside down. It’s a stunning visual gesture and it creates an appropriately glossy, reflective world for the tragedy to play out on, but it ultimately feels a little shallow.
Apart from that slight misstep, the direction of this largely stripped-back, monochromatic production works to not only clarify the work and relationships, but to make it almost transparent; there’s nothing at all hidden from the audience — we see everything at work.
This production features some of the best vocal performances you’re likely to see on any stage this year, and there’s not a weak link amongst the principal cast.
Out front is Nicole Car as the tragic figure of Luisa. Like most operatic sopranos, she’s subjected to a hell of a lot of abuse and, at the very least, this production finds the truth and full weight of that abuse. After a slightly tentative start, Car unleashes the full extent of her vocal power — it’s a unique instrument with the perfect balance of darkness and a ringing, bright resonance.
In fact, it was probably Car’s star power which tempted Opera Australia’s Artistic Director Lyndon Terracini to program the work. It’s a role which seems both vocally and dramatically tailor-made for the young soprano.
Diego Torre turns in the best performance I’ve ever heard from him. In the second act, he goes absolutely hell-for-leather, managing to imbue his voice with pain and distress while still sounding secure and powerful.
As the feuding fathers, Dalibor Jenis and Raymond Aceto are well-matched, both dramatically and vocally. Jenis has the strongest fatherly instincts for his daughter and will do whatever he can to protect her, while Aceto is absolutely unshakeable as Count Walter.
Daniel Sumegi is perfectly villainous and creepy as Wurm, and Sian Pendry has drawn a finely textured physical characterisation as the duchess Federica.
Conductor Andrea Licata and the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra find all of the dynamics in Verdi’s score without ever over-egging them, and there’s some gorgeous clarinet work in there.
The musical standards are deliriously high across the board. And when it’s an opera which audiences so rarely get the opportunity to see, the music has to come first.