One of many surprises in this first Australian production of Verdi’s Luisa Miller is the number of beautiful melodies imbedded in the score. Which of course beggars the question, why haven’t we seen this opera before?
Another is the strength of the singing, spread evenly across the superb cast, each of whom contributes thrillingly to the production. The difficulty of assembling such a cast of course might be part of the answer to the above question.
Being a Verdi opera, one would expect great choruses. This production doesn’t disappoint in that department either, with the Opera Australia chorus excelling themselves with fastidiously detailed chorus singing, while providing glamorous mobile scenery as they parade ominously around the perimeter of the set.
Then there is William Orlandi’s stunning set. When the audience enters the theatre it is confronted by two huge groups of gleaming white marble statuary set on a shiny black floor. One group depicts a family. The other is a formal fireplace.
During the overture, this statuary begins to slide backwards until it comes to rest, up-side-down, above the stage, where it remains until the end of the opera, when it slowly descends to its original position. The effect is as unsettling as it is spectacular, particularly as action on stage is reflected in the shiny floor overhead.
Finally there is Giancarlo del Monaco’s extraordinary staging concept, which presents the whole opera as a sort of abstract, in which the chorus, elegantly costumed in black evening dress, process around the stage, while the story is acted out in a series of set-pieces. This device works a treat, so that the audience has little difficulty keeping up with the convoluted storyline.
Unsurprising however, is the melodramatic libretto, which tells the story of two young lovers, Luisa (Nicole Car) and Rodolfo (Diego Torre) whose love for each other upsets the plans of their respective fathers, Miller (Dalibor Jenis) and Count Walter (Raymond Aceto). Luisa’s father is concerned that she is marrying above her station, while Rodolfo’s father had planned to marry Rodolfo off to a wealthy widowed duchess, Federica (Sian Pendry).
To muddy the water further, Walter’s retainer, the dastardly Wurm (portrayed with great relish by Daniel Sumegi) has his eye on Luisa, so hatches a plot to imprison Luisa’s father, and blackmail Luisa with her father’s death if she doesn’t sign a document renouncing Rodolfo and declaring her undying love for Wurm.
Spoiler alert: If you don’t want to know how it all ends, read no further, because the ending is a doozy. Naturally Wurm makes sure that Rodolfo sees the document that Luisa has signed under duress. Rodolfo is heartbroken, decides not only to poison himself, but to trick Luisa into unwittingly drinking the poison as well.
After they have both consumed the poison, Luisa reveals to Rodolfo how she had been blackmailed by Wurm, and after declaring her undying love for Rodolfo, expires prettily. Both fathers, with Wurm in tow, arrive just in time to witness Rodolfo in his death throes, but with still enough breath to curse Wurm for his skulduggery.
Hardly a surprise, but a tantalising attraction, this production offers the opportunity to experience Nicole Car in her first Verdi role as Luisa Miller, following her recent overseas successes. Bringing a calm unsophisticated presence to the role, she sings magnificently. Her clear, warm voice is able to soar effortlessly above the ensembles, and still thrill with elegance and accuracy in the coloratura passages. She is blessed in this production with three outstanding leading men, each a magnificent singer and strong actor, and her duets with each of them allow her opportunity to display the range of her acting skills.
Her relationship with her adoring father, Miller, Slovakian baritone, Dalibor Jenis in glorious voice, is touchingly realised so that it’s not difficult to understand her willingness to acquiesce to the demands of the villainous, Wurm, to protect her father.
Diego Torre is such a flamboyant, passionate Rodolfo that it’s a no brainer that she’s going to be knocked sideways by his attentions. Their final duet when they both realise that they have been fatally duped provides one of the many highlights of this production. And there is certainly no doubting her repulsion to the advances of the loathsome Wurm, and their scenes together are electric.
Luisa Miller offers great roles for two basses, and this production sports two of the best in American bass, Raymond Aceto, as Rodolfo’s scheming father, Count Walter, and Daniel Sumegi, oozing evil as the aforesaid, Wurm. Their duet together when they realise that they both may be doomed provides a particularly memorable operatic moment.
Despite the limited opportunities offered by the role, Sian Pendry manages to impress as the glamorous widowed duchess, Federica, as does the rich contralto of Eva Kong in the even less rewarding role of the maid, Laura. Curiously, although the fathers of both Luisa and Rodolfo are very present in this opera there seems to be no reference to the mothers of either.
Totally unsurprising, but remarkably satisfying, is the rich sound produced by the Australian Opera and Ballet orchestra under the experienced baton of Verdi specialist, Andrea Licata, who succeeds in exposing the boldness and drama of this remarkable score without ever threatening to drown out the singing of the superb cast.
This season of Luisa Miller is very short; however it is already destined to be remembered as one of the most stimulating and exciting operatic productions of 2016.
Joan Sutherland Theatre – Sydney Opera House, Bennelong Point, Sydney
Season continues to 29 February 2016
Bookings: (02) 9318 8200 or online at: www.opera.org.au
For more information, visit: www.opera.org.au for details.
Image: Diego Torre and Nicole Car in Opera Australia’s production of Luisa Miller – photo by Prudence Upton
Review: Bill Stephens