Monday 17 February 2020

Welcome rarity: Verdi's Luisa Miller receives a strong musical performance in Barbora Horáková's new production at ENO

Verdi: Luisa Miller - David Junghoon Kim, Elizabeth Llewellyn - English National Opera ( © Tristram Kenton)
Verdi: Luisa Miller - David Junghoon Kim, Elizabeth Llewellyn - English National Opera ( © Tristram Kenton)
Verdi Luisa Miller; Elizabeth Llewellyn, David Junghoon Kim, Olafur Sigurdarson, Soloman Howard, James Creswell, Christine Rice, dir: Barbora Horáková , cond: Alexander Joel; English National Opera at the London Coliseum
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 15 February 2020 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
Superb musical performances in a strongly psychological interpretation of Verdi's important yet rarely performed opera.

Verdi's Luisa Miller occupies an important position in the composer's operatic output. Written for Naples in 1849, the work's genesis was complex owing to problems with the theatre and the Neapolitan censors. This led not to the political and patriotic work that Verdi wished for but to an essentially domestic drama based on a play by Schiller; the first time Verdi had worked on a purely bourgeois drama. And the longer gestation time allowed Verdi to experiment with ideas learned whilst he was in Paris supervising his opera Jerusalem, so Luisa Miller makes a far greater, and more sophisticated use of the orchestra including two substantial orchestrally accompanied recitatives, and has a new flexibility when it comes to form. We can feel Verdi, almost for the first time, shaping the music to the drama rather than fitting it into pre-existing conventional forms.

The opera, however, is perhaps harder to love than the three operas which came after it, Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, La traviata; the characters are all in some way unsympathetic except for Luisa herself. So, it tends to be an opera which is admired and revered rather than loved. Certainly it has not been seen much on the London stage; there was a rather old-fashioned Filippo Sanjust production at Covent Garden in 1978 which received its final revival in 1981, and then a modish Olivier Tambosi production there in 2003 which was never revived. Apart from that there hasn't been much else beyond valuable concert performances from other opera groups. I was lucky enough to see the work at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in the 1980s with Luciano Pavarotti as Rodolfo, again in a very traditional production. None of these, however, seemed to be able to make a strong case for the piece as drama.

Verdi: Luisa Miller - James Creswell, Soloman Howard - English National Opera ( © Tristram Kenton)
Verdi: Luisa Miller - James Creswell, Soloman Howard - English National Opera ( © Tristram Kenton)
For the new production of Verdi's Luisa Miller at the London Coliseum (seen 15 February 2020), English National Opera invited the young Czech director Barbora Horáková, and drew together a strong cast with Elizabeth Llewellyn making a welcome appearance in the UK as Luisa, David Junghoon Kim as Rodolfo, Olafur Sigurdarson as Miller (his ENO debut), James Creswell as Count Walter, Soloman Howard as Wurm, Christine Rice as Federica and Nadine Benjamin as Laura. Sets were by Andrew Lieberman with costumes by Eva-Maria Van Acker, choreography by James Rosental, lighting by Michael Bauer. Alexander Joel conducted. The translation was by Martin Fitzpatrick.

Barbora Horáková was a finalist and prizewinner at the Ring Award Graz in 2017 and received the Best Newcomer Award at the 2018 International Opera Awards. We caught her production of Verdi's early comedy Un giorno di regno at the Heidenheim Festival in 2017 [see my review]. Luisa Miller was a co-production with Oper Wuppertal where it has already been performed, but in an article in the programme book Horáková made it clear that the production had been extensively re-worked (and re-designed) for London (a glance at the Wuppertal production photos in the programme book confirmed this).

The plot is a mixture of family drama and class struggle. Miller (Olafur Sigurdarson) is a retired soldier who expects his young daughter Luisa (Elizabeth Llewellyn) to be a comfort in his old age and is opposed to her being wooed by the mysterious Carlo (David Junghoon Kim). Carlo is in fact Rodolfo, the son of Count Walter (James Creswell), the local lord of the manor. Walter and Rodolfo are at odds, and Walter has a guilty secret, his murder of his cousin enabled Walter to inherit the estate. Central to this is Walter's steward Wurm (Soloman Howard) who lusts after Luisa himself, and a complicating factor is that the young Rodolfo witnessed the murder. Of course, it ends badly.

Verdi: Luisa Miller - Olafur Sigurdarson, Elizabeth Llewellyn - English National Opera ( © Tristram Kenton)
Verdi: Luisa Miller - Olafur Sigurdarson, Elizabeth Llewellyn - English National Opera ( © Tristram Kenton)
Horáková told the story with clarity, and with no additions and subtractions, she told the story with and through the music (her only alteration was that Wurm did not die at the end). Her chosen language was that of European regie-theater, a style which we do not see regularly in the UK. It is perhaps worth bearing in mind that Horáková's theatrical language would be familiar to many of the audience goers in Wuppertal. It is also worth bearing in mind a comment by Bernard Haitink. He conducted the Richard Jones production of Wagner's Ring Cycle at Covent Garden, though Haitink famously had doubts about the production but conducted it because Jones drew such superb performances from the singers and said that it was impossible to dissociate the production from the musical values. So, coming out of this production saying we enjoyed the singing but disliked the production style is doing Horáková a disservice.

Whilst I have no particular enthusiasm for this style of production, I have no objection to it either. As I have said, Horáková told the story with clarity and drew strong performances from her cast as she drilled down into the more complex psychological underpinning of the story.  Though it is clear from the interview with her in the programme book that every detail meant something, the visual style of the production was rather too cluttered, what with clowns, balloons, two children representing the more innocent side of Luisa and Rodolfo, dancers who according to Horáková represented the Darkness which was personified by Wurm, the white walls on which people scrawled, the ubiquitious use of a tar-like substance which seemed to get everywhere.

But this emphasis on the psychological paid dividends in the performances which were outstanding, and for the first time I experienced Luisa Miller as riveting drama. It helped that for Acts Two and Three, Horáková allowed us to concentrate on the singers and these two had a far greater sense of focussed drama. We should also bear in mind the negative benefits of Horáková's style, the production lacked the trivialising prettiness of a traditional staging, she stuck to the story and didn't give us her version of Luisa Miller, and there was no over-sexualisation of the plot. Eva-Maria Van Acker's costumes, whilst being of mixed eras and styles (including the chorus in vaguely clown-like Day of the Dead style), gave us a clear distinction of the class layers in this work. Class is important in many 19th century operas, and too many opera directors tend to play this factor down. And those white walls, whilst writing on white walls is a bit of a tired trope I did love the way that black dribbled down them in the second half, giving us a visual metaphor for the way the Darkness encroached. Though the cleaning and laundry bill each night must be huge!

Technically there are three leading roles (Miller, Luisa, Rodolfo) and three smaller ones (Walter, Wurm, Federica), but the smaller ones received such strong performances here that we had little sense of this hierarchy, instead there was a superb ensemble feel supporting strong individual performances.

Verdi: Luisa Miller - Nadine Benjamin, Elizabeth Llewellyn, Soloman Howard - English National Opera ( © Tristram Kenton)
Verdi: Luisa Miller - Nadine Benjamin, Elizabeth Llewellyn, Soloman Howard
English National Opera ( © Tristram Kenton)
Elizabeth Llewellyn was outstanding as Luisa, a young woman who has to grow up quickly and face the real world. She had the flexibility to sing Luisa's often elaborate vocal writing whilst being able to draw out a strong, shapely vocal line. She also conveyed Luisa's psychological journey with great intensity, Llewellyn is a singer who is able to convey much with face and with eyes, this was an intense and gripping experience.

She was well partnered by David Junghoon Kim as Rodolfo. Kim was vivid and tireless in the role, and whilst he did not have the ideal open-throated Italianate sound, he sang with a wonderful intensity whilst giving us a gorgeous mezza-voce for his cavatina at the beginning of Act Three. We never really see Luisa and Rodolfo/Carlo in happier times, but their final long scene as the two lay dying was transcendently magical. The men in the opera are all various types of shit. Whilst Rodolfo happily dupes Luisa, he immediately jumps to conclusions when things go wrong for her.

Her father, by contrast is simply  a selfish old git, he pretends to be concerned for her welfare, but he really wants her as a comfort for his old age. Olafur Sigurdarson managed to make the character human, if not entirely sympathetic, and in Act Three when released from prison both he and Llewellyn captured the sense of trauma that the characters have gone through. Sigurdarson's singing was admirably strong and focused, with a great feeling for Verdi's line though there were moments when I worried that he was trying a bit too hard.

Verdi: Luisa Miller - David Junghoon Kim - English National Opera ( © Tristram Kenton)
Verdi: Luisa Miller - David Junghoon Kim - English National Opera ( © Tristram Kenton)
Wurm is traditionally portrayed as ugly in some way so that his exterior matches his evil interior, but Soloman Howard's Wurm was anything but. Tall, handsome, physically fit (we got a good view of his upper body muscles) and sexy, Howard was completely mesmerising and disturbing. On stage for a good bit of the time, Howard's presence as Wurm radiated his sense of control and contributed considerably to the character's omnipresence in the plot. Howard sang with a fine, dark line making Wurm as vocally seductive as he was physically, this was an amoral character whom it would be difficult to resist.

James Creswell had a different, but equally strong presence as Count Walter; Creswell was the embodiment of entitlement as well as a certain amorality, but also an underlying weakness which was his downfall. Christine Rice was a complete delight as Federica, and we wished Verdi had got his way and made more of the character. Nadine Benjamin, in fine voice, seized her moments as Luisa's friend Laura. Adam Sullivan (a member of the ENO Chorus) gave sterling support as a citizen (in the original, a peasant).

Perhaps more important than individual performances was the terrific feeling of interaction between these, so that the duets and ensembles fair crackled, the dialogue gripped and flowed particularly the scenes between Miller and Luisa, and Luisa and Rodolfo in the last act, creating some fine musical drama.

Andrew Lieberman's sets with their large flat surfaces provided valuable support to the singers, and the expanded ENO Chorus was in terrific form. This was one of the first operas in which Verdi made the chorus actually part of the action, here they are fellow villagers, and the chorus members really seized their opportunities and created a strong dramatic presence.

Verdi: Luisa Miller - Nadine Benjamin, Elizabeth Llewellyn, David Junghoon Kim - English National Opera ( © Tristram Kenton)
Verdi: Luisa Miller - Nadine Benjamin, Elizabeth Llewellyn, David Junghoon Kim
English National Opera ( © Tristram Kenton)
In the pit, Alexander Joel drew impressive playing from the orchestra, this was an impulsive and dramatic performance. Joel clearly knows and understands Verdi, and this was an account of the opera where the drama and the music were linked, so that moments like Verdi's important long recitative sections were finely fluid whilst the big moments were thrilling.

By the end of this evening it was impossible not to be gripped by the drama, and to be fully engaged by the music. ENO had put together a strong cast, and Joel and Horáková drew from them some thrilling drama and very fine Verdi singing indeed.

This review also appears on Opera Today.

Verdi: Luisa Miller - English National Opera ( © Tristram Kenton)
Verdi: Luisa Miller - English National Opera
( © Tristram Kenton)
Count Walter - James Creswell
Rodolfo - David Junghoon Kim
Federica - Christine Rice
Wurm - Soloman Howard
Miller - Olafur Sigurdarson
Luisa - Elizabeth Llewellyn
Laura - Nadine Benjamin
A Citizen - Adam Sullivan
Dancers - Stephanie Bentley, Sam Ford, Anna Holmes, John William Watson
Children - William Barber/David Cummings, Halle Cassell/Taziva-Faye Katsande

Conductor - Alexander Joel
Director - Barbora Horáková
Set Designer - Andrew Lieberman
Costume Designer - Eva-Maria Van Acker
Lighting Designer - Michael Bauer
Choreographer - James Rosental

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