Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

John F. Larchet's Complete Songs and Airs: in conversation with Niall Kinsella

Dublin-born John F. Larchet (1884-1967) might well be described as the father of post-Independence Irish music, given the immense influenced that he had upon Irish musical life during the first half of the 20th century - as a composer, musician, administrator and teacher.

Haddon Hall: 'Sullivan sans Gilbert' does not disappoint thanks to the BBC Concert Orchestra and John Andrews

The English Civil War is raging. The daughter of a Puritan aristocrat has fallen in love with the son of a Royalist supporter of the House of Stuart. Will love triumph over political expediency and religious dogma?

Beethoven’s Choral Symphony and Choral Fantasy from Harmonia Mundi

Beethoven Symphony no 9 (the Choral Symphony) in D minor, Op. 125, and the Choral Fantasy in C minor, Op. 80 with soloist Kristian Bezuidenhout, Pablo Heras-Casado conducting the Freiburger Barockorchester, new from Harmonia Mundi.

A Musical Reunion at Garsington Opera

The hum of bees rising from myriad scented blooms; gentle strains of birdsong; the cheerful chatter of picnickers beside a still lake; decorous thwacks of leather on willow; song and music floating through the warm evening air.

Taking Risks with Barbara Hannigan

A Louise Brooks look-a-like, in bobbed black wig and floor-sweeping leather trench-coat, cheeks purple-rouged and eyes shadowed in black, Barbara Hannigan issues taut gestures which elicit fire-cracker punch from the Mahler Chamber Orchestra.

Alfredo Piatti: The Operatic Fantasies (Vol.2) - in conversation with Adrian Bradbury

‘Signor Piatti in a fantasia on themes from Beatrice di Tenda had also his triumph. Difficulties, declared to be insuperable, were vanquished by him with consummate skill and precision. He certainly is amazing, his tone magnificent, and his style excellent. His resources appear to be inexhaustible; and altogether for variety, it is the greatest specimen of violoncello playing that has been heard in this country.’

'In my end is my beginning': Mark Padmore and Mitsuko Uchida perform Winterreise at Wigmore Hall

All good things come to an end, so they say. Let’s hope that only the ‘good thing’ part of the adage is ever applied to Wigmore Hall, and that there is never any sign of ‘an end’.

Those Blue Remembered Hills: Roderick Williams sings Gurney and Howells

Baritone Roderick Williams seems to have been a pretty constant ‘companion’, on my laptop screen and through my stereo speakers, during the past few ‘lock-down’ months.

Iestyn Davies and Elizabeth Kenny bring 'sweet music' to Wigmore Hall

Countertenor Iestyn Davies and lutenist Elizabeth Kenny kicked off the final week of live lunchtime recitals broadcast online and on radio from Wigmore Hall.

Bruno Ganz and Kirill Gerstein almost rescue Strauss’s Enoch Arden

Melodramas can be a difficult genre for composers. Before Richard Strauss’s Enoch Arden the concept of the melodrama was its compact size – Weber’s Wolf’s Glen scene in Der Freischütz, Georg Benda’s Ariadne auf Naxos and Medea or even Leonore’s grave scene in Beethoven’s Fidelio.

From Our House to Your House: live from the Royal Opera House

I’m not ashamed to confess that I watched this live performance, streamed from the stage of the Royal Opera House, with a tear in my eye.

Woman’s Hour with Roderick Williams and Joseph Middleton at Wigmore Hall

At the start of this lunchtime recital, Roderick Williams set out the rationale behind the programme that he and pianist Joseph Middleton presented at Wigmore Hall, bringing to a close a second terrific week of live lunchtime broadcasts, freely accessible via Wigmore Hall’s YouTube channel and BBC Radio 3.

Francisco Valls' Missa Regalis: The Choir of Keble College Oxford and the AAM

In the annals of musical controversies, the Missa Scala Aretina debate does not have the notoriety of the Querelle des Bouffons, the Monteverdi-Artusi spat, or the audience-shocking premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.

Two song cycles by Sir Arthur Somervell: Roderick Williams and Susie Allan

Robert Browning, Lord Alfred Tennyson, Charles Kingsley, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, A.E. Housman … the list of those whose work Sir Arthur Somervell (1863-1937) set to music, in his five song-cycles, reads like a roll call of Victorian poetry - excepting the Edwardian Housman.

Roger Quilter: The Complete Quilter Songbook, Vol. 3

Mark Stone and Stephen Barlow present Volume 3 in their series The Complete Roger Quilter Songbook, on Stone Records.

Richard Danielpour – The Passion of Yeshua

A contemporary telling of the Passion story which uses texts from both the Christian and the Jewish traditions to create a very different viewpoint.

Les Talens Lyriques: 18th-century Neapolitan sacred works

In 1770, during an extended tour of France and Italy to observe the ‘present state of music’ in those two countries, the English historian, critic and composer Charles Burney spent a month in Naples - a city which he noted (in The Present State of Music in France and Italy (1771)) ‘has so long been regarded as the centre of harmony, and the fountain from whence genius, taste, and learning, have flowed to every other part of Europe.’

Herbert Howells: Missa Sabrinensis revealed in its true glory

At last, Herbert Howells’s Missa Sabrinensis (1954) with David Hill conducting the Bach Choir, with whom David Willcocks performed the piece at the Royal Festival Hall in 1982. Willcocks commissioned this Mass for the Three Choirs Festival in Worcester in 1954, when Howells himself conducted the premiere.

Natalya Romaniw - Arion: Voyage of a Slavic Soul

Sailing home to Corinth, bearing treasures won in a music competition, the mythic Greek bard, Arion, found his golden prize coveted by pirates and his life in danger.

Le Banquet Céleste: Stradella's San Giovanni Battista

The life of Alessandro Stradella was characterised by turbulence, adventure and amorous escapades worthy of an opera libretto. Indeed, at least seven composers have turned episodes from the 17th-century Italian composer’s colourful life into operatic form, the best known being Flotow whose three-act comic opera based on the Lothario’s misadventures was first staged in Hamburg in 1844.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

16 Feb 2020

Luisa Miller at English National 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.

Luisa Miller, at English National Opera

A review by Robert Hugill

Above: Nadine Benjamin, Elizabeth Llewellyn and Soloman Howard.

Photo credit: Tristram Kenton

 

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.

For the new production of Verdi's Luisa Miller at the London Coliseum, 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 comedyUn giorno di regno at the Heidenheim Festival in 2017. 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.

David Junghoon Kim, © Tristram Kenton.jpgDavid Junghoon Kim. Photo credit: 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 opera-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, he 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 ubiquitous 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!

Olafur Sigurdarson, Elizabeth Llewellyn, © Tristram Kenton.jpg Olafur Sigurdarson, Elizabeth Llewellyn. Photo credit: Tristram Kenton.

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.

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.

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.

Christine Rice, © Tristram Kenton.jpgChristine Rice. Photo credit: Tristram Kenton.

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 actually made the chorus part of the action; here they are fellow villagers, and the chorus members really seized their opportunities and created a strong dramatic presence.

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.

Robert Hugill

Verdi: Luisa Miller

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); Director - Barbora Horáková, Conductor - Alexander Joel, Set Designer - Andrew Lieberman, Costume Designer - Eva-Maria Van Acker, Lighting Designer - Michael Bauer, Choreographer - James Rosental, Orchestra and Chorus of English National Opera.

English National Opera, London Coliseum; Saturday 15th February 2020.

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):