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Giuseppe Verdi: Luisa Miller
17 Aug 2009

Verdi: Luisa Miller

On a good night an opera performance can come across with visceral excitement without a classy production, top-name singers, or the benefit of being of one of the more familiar titles.

Giuseppe Verdi: Luisa Miller

Luisa (Darina Takova); Rodolfo (Giuseppe Sabbatini); Il conte di Walter (Alexander Vinogradov); Miller (Damiano Salerno); Federica (Ursula Ferri); Wurm (Arutjun Kotchinian); Laura (Elisabetta Martorana); Un Contadino (Luca Favaron). Teatro La Fenice Chorus. Teatro La Fenice Orchestra. Maurizio Benini, conductor. Armaud Bernard, stage director. Alessandro Camera, set design. Filmed at the Teatro La Fenice, Venice, Italy, May 2006

Naxos 2.110225 [2DVDs]

$41.49  Click to buy

Such is the case with this Luisa Miller, staged at the Teatro la Fenice in 2006 and released by Naxos. The singers, in modern dress, perform on abstract sets dominated, for no clear reason, by photographic reproductions on flat columns. The title role is taken by Darina Takova, a hard-working singer but not a star. Her tenor, Giuseppe Sabbatini, has had some big nights in opera houses (and days in the recording studio) in his career, without ever quite establishing himself in the top rank. The rest of the cast even fewer may know of. The opera itself is not Verdi’s most consistently inspired score, though he was approaching his artistic maturity and the music always serves its dramatic purpose - as melodramatic as that may be in Salvatore Cammarano’s adaptation of a Friedrich von Schiller play. But it all comes together, under director Arnaud Bernard and conductor Maurizo Benini’s leadership (on stage and in the pit, respectively). It may not be pretty, but it’s an exciting, engaging Luisa Miller.

What director Bernard wanted from Alessandro Camera’s sets remains unclear - perhaps he simply asked for a prop-less space and had only the budget for the rudimentary backdrops that Camera provides. At least the Count’s home has more of a frame of reference, with the cool lighting (unceredited in the Naxos booklet) outlining a formal space, rather like an underpopulated hospital lobby. The first scene establishes Bernard’s style. As the chorus tries to awake the sleeping Luisa, she lies prone on the stage, with the chorus hovering over her. The vague ominousness of the image foreshadows the cruel and sad events to come, as Luisa is forced to lie and renounce her lover Rodolfo to save her father, because the Count wants his son to marry one Federica. To enforce his nefarious plan, the Count employs Wurm, portaryed with relish by the tall, glowering Arutjun Kotchinian (sene last season in San Diego Opera’s Rigoletto as Sparafucile). Kotchinian has the look, sure, but most importantly, he has the voice - a palpably dark and heavy bass. The La Fenice audience shows him its appreciation at final curtain.

They also warmly applaud Luisa’s father, handsomely sung by Damiano Salerno. All the darker voices impress: Ursula Ferri makes the most of her moments as Federica, and Alexander Vinogradov schemes impressively as the Count.

The leads get big hands too, of course. Rodolfo may be on the heavy side for Sabbatini, but at this point in his career he has the experience and colors to succeed. His act two aria, probably the score’s best known number, goes very well. Takova needs some time to warm up, and she has some challenging music in the first act. After that, she takes command. The drama of the last two acts suits her strong voice, and though she may not look like the youngest daughter the miller could have had, she gets to the heart of the role.

Maurizo Benini supplies tension and drive in the pit, and the Naxos sound - perhaps because the performance is spread over two discs - is remarkably clear and dynamic.

Some may object to the updating, and admittedly, the production can fairly be called drab. But the performance succeeds nonetheless, and as Luisa Miller doesn’t come around all that often, opera fans trying looking for some distraction this summer should check out this Naxos set.

Chris Mullins

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