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11.6.05

Mi Chiamo Luisa Miller 

(published first at ionarts)

updated 10 VI


A wonderfully played clarinet stuck out of Verdi's Luisa Miller overture when the Washington Concert Opera Orchestra, led by Music Director Antony Walker, presented it at GW's Lisner Auditorium. But not only the clarinet did well: the entire orchestra fulfilled the expectations they had set with their notable performance of Esclarmonde last April. Only the violin section was a little thin and sounded exhausted by the third act. But Esclarmonde was such a magnificent success on account of its singing, and the expectations set there were perhaps unrealistic for any opera house performance to fulfill, much less the most admirable but small WCO.

The singers in Luisa Miller included an outstanding, clear baritone Donnie Ray Albert as Signor Miller (the audience rose unisono when he came on stage after the 'curtain'), and Indra Thomas (Luisa) with a powerful, MET-tested, but hazy voice that won in stature as the evening went on. Kyle Engler, not new to Washington audiences who had the chance to see her in Andrea Chénier, Democracy, and Dialogue of the Carmelites, impressed with clarity and her beautiful, chamber-like, never pushed voice in the third act.

Richard Leech lent his tenor to the role of Rodolfo. Having sung 12 roles at the MET is an impressive item on any tenor's vita, and not surprisingly he had no problems filling the Lisner Auditorium with his sound. Somehow, though Mr. Leech, too, sounded a bit stuffy, something I would have blamed on the acoustics, if Mr. Albert had not sung next to him with a considerably higher degree of clarity. Wurm (German for worm) was sung by Matthew Lau, whose bass is imposing but far back in the throat. Daniel Sumegi sang Count Walter very well, his sonorous bass-baritone with that far-back cavernous sound about it that can be the product of projection winning over tone production. (The result is curiously similar to the sound you make saying 'AAAAaaah' at the Doctor's.) Like many of the impressive cast members, Mr. Sumegi has bona fide credentials, the MET, Covent Garden, and the Paris Opera being just a few of the notable houses in which he has sung.

Christa Ludwig-mentored Gigi Mitchell-Valesco is no stranger, either: she had contributed to that splendid Esclarmonde in the role of Parséïs. This time she sang Federica to the highest standards, with wit and with grace.

The opera itself divides opera lovers. Verdi fans will certainly appreciate most of it (and there are glorious moments in it), but the seams of this cobbled-together opera are very noticeable. The drama isn't all too compelling, and there might, after all, be a reason why it is not terribly often performed. If the singing is as good as it was at the Washington Concert Opera, it might be compelling... if the singing were any less than that, I suspect all but the most ardent Verdinites in the audience would be terribly bored by and throughout the third act. As someone who fails to see the genius behind Nabucco, though, my word may not count for much. An impressive feat it was, but as spectacular as Esclarmonde it was not. Tim Page's take on Luisa Miller can be read here.

Next season has one particular gem to look forward to, Rossini's Tancredi. (Why they bother with Cavalleria Rusticana as part of a double bill, I do not know. I might be misled by its popularity on record to think it is well performed, but even if it were neglected, I could think of many operas, short or long, that are neglected and that I would crawl on my knees to the Lisner to see the WCO do.)

update:

Jeffrey Kallberg criticises rightly:
It is fair enough to find fault with Verdi's music from a personal aesthetic point of view - we all have our stylistic bugaboos - but it isn't so fair to portray Luisa Miller as "cobbled together" (implying that Verdi threw the thing together hastily, clumsily, and/or without careful planning). Both Verdi and Cammarano (the librettist) toiled hard on the piece, thoughtfully working out what they felt to be the proper sequence of dramatic action and the attendant musical settings. If Verdi and Cammarano had truly "cobbled together" Luisa Miller, contemporary critics of the stature of Basevi would not have been likely to see the opera as marking the onset of Verdi's mature middle style.


His is a point well taken. Perhaps the review was 'cobbled together', rather than Luisa Miller. What I was aiming at, was more the somewhat predictable un-novel composition (not the notes, but the structure) that, for all the thoughtful work that probably went into it, hardly bursts at the seems with novelty. In my biased eyes and ears, Luisa Miller is a victim of the expectations (and conventions) of its time and does not go much beyond those.

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