I braced Storm Dennis’s ferocious embrace on Saturday night for a dose of operatic drama in the company of the English National Opera’s Luisa Miller. This is the ENO’s first staging of Verdi’s fifteenth opera and one which I have been longing to see for years. Written when Verdi was 36, the opera marks the outset of the composer’s middle period which would go on to deliver the big hitters, La Traviata and Rigoletto.
Based on the play by German dramatist Friedrich von Schiller, Intrigue and Love, Verdi recast the piece into a three-act opera with a libretto by Salvadore Cammarano. It’s got all the Verdiesque ingredients you would expect: love, deceit, death and bad parenting. Luisa, daughter of a village commoner, is in love with Carlo, a young man she has met in her village. Carlo turns out to be Rodolfo in disguise, who is in fact the son of the wealthy and powerful Count Walter who is a once-upon-a-time murderer. Walter has other marriage designs for his son, and his parental heart is firmly set on noblewoman Frederica.
Luisa’s father, Miller, is approached by courtier Wurm who is in love with Luisa and will stop at nothing to stop the Rodolfo/Luisa love fest. Fast forward and father and daughter end up imprisoned. The only path to freedom means Luisa must forfeit Rodolfo whilst giving into Wurm’s evil machinations. The younger facsimiles of Rodolfo and Luisa watch their older selves losing it in composed bemusement.
It’s a bold production by Barbora Horáková with a contemporary set design by Andrew Lieberman. A black and white antiseptic backdrop gets the graffiti treatment, eventually becoming as messy as the on-stage relationships. Clowns from the Mexican Day of the Dead are brought in, and eerie props include a shredded teddy bear and an upside-down crucified scarecrow. And there’s a heck of a lot of smearing, both physical and emotional.
The title role is sung by the radiant British soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn who leads us with both tenderness and intensity into the climactic final act with its two heart-wrenching duets. I’m not convinced by her costume design – more frumpy old housewife than young ingénue. But never mind the drab frock – she makes a formidable duo with Korean tenor (and Jette Parker Young Artist graduate) David Junghoon Kim. His Rodolfo is a pleasure to watch, and he delivers the opera’s big number, Quando le sere al placido, with passion and poise.
Icelandinc baritone Olafur Sigurdarson makes a polished ENO debut as Luisa’s father, whilst bass James Creswell delivers a ferocious Count Walter. Then there’s the Machiavellian steward, Wurm, sung by sexy Soloman Howard who dishes out large doses of vocal power and grit. Mezzo-soprano Christina Rice makes a strong impression as Frederica and Nadine Benjamin returns to the ENO after her outstanding performance as Clara in Porgy and Bess.
The maniacal staging won’t be to everyone’s taste, but with its thrilling arias and powerful and haunting score conducted by Alexander Joel, this Verdi masterpiece is one not to be missed.
Luisa Miller at the English National Opera is on until 6 March. You can book here.
I was a guest of the ENO. As always, all opinions are my own.
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