Alpine virgin opera

On Saturday-night-before-last (by now) to Opera Australia for Luisa Miller, one of that increasing rarity on OA’s roster, an actual operatic rarity.

I’ve seen Luisa Miller described as one of an (albeit) limited genre of “Alpine Virgin Operas” – Bellini’s La Sonnambula is the most well-known example; another is Donizetti’s Linda of Chamounix.  In each case, the alpine setting is a pastoral foil against which threats to the purity of the maiden in question are set.  In La S and Linda, there is a happy ending; for Luisa (sorry about the spoiler) there isn’t.

There wasn’t too much or even any of the Alpine pastoral in this production.  Perhaps OA’s co-producers, in Lausanne, already have enough of it.  The set was a severe black and glossy artefact with a kind of white garden-furniture still life of a bourgeois household at tea facing a fireplace from above which a bust of Verdi gazed down and behind which a mysterious figure skulked.  At the beginning of the action this tilted up and hung upside down poised above the central stage section.  Naturally, it returned to place at the end of the action.

Nobody seems to know what this means or is intended to mean, from which I infer that parting with $20 for the program would have left me none the wiser.  Is it, as one person speculated online (sorry, can’t be bothered to refind the link) a depiction of the act of usurpation by the Count?    The best guess I could make was that it depicted the happy future for Luisa for which her father hoped which was snatched away from her as a result of her becoming involved with her betters.  Alternately, it could be the “intimate life” to which it is usually thought that Luisa Miller marks a change in Verdi’s subject matter (as opposed to the more heroic operas of his “early” phase) though that strikes me as a bit too obscure.

I realise I have got ahead of myself.

The plot, shortly stated is: LM, beloved daughter of her retired soldier father (Miller, obviously), has fallen in love with a handsome stranger, Rodolfo.  (Having seen A Winter’s Tale just the other week I was well prepared for this trope.)  He turns out to be the son of Count Walter who has an eye on a widowed duchess as a suitable match for his son.  The count’s offsider, Wurm (obviously a baddie) has his eye on LM.

The Count’s first intrusion on the pastoral scene is driven off by Rodolfo’s threat to reveal how the Count (henceforth CW) succeeded his cousin to the title.  As we subsequently learn, CW and Wurm did CW’s cousin in when it looked like the cousin was about to marry and beget heirs who would block CW’s succession.

Rodolfo’s tactic only works for the first-act closer.  CW has Miller thrown in prison.  Wurm tells Luisa that her father will only get out if she writes a letter declaring her love for Wurm and swears to say that she wrote this letter of her own accord.  She does so (for her father’s sake.)  Rodolfo, in despair, accedes to his father’s wishes and marries the duchess.  LM wants to die but her father dissuades her from this: they will wander the world to get away from it all.

Luisa then catches up with Rodolfo, now married, who, also in despair, poisons her (without asking her) and then himself – ie, your typical murder-suicide.  LM is apparently OK with this though she tells him the truth about the letter and there is a long farewell between them both and Miller.  The chorus and the villains turn up for the curtain call and Rodolfo is supposed to kill Wurm although I’m not sure he succeeded on this occasion.

The chorus spent the opera pacing around in a kind of funeral procession with top hats and flowers – apparently this (along with the pivoting still life) framed the whole thing as a kind of flash-back: the funeral at the end is pre-ordained.

It’s been presented here as a bit of a star turn for young Nicole Car – billed elsewhere as possibly the next Joan Sutherland.  Ahem.  I suppose many things are possible.  She was good though on the night I was there there were a few shockers at the top in her first big sing and some unrefined trills in the last act.

The soloists as a whole were a strong bunch.  Maybe that was why the orchestra seemed so loud – on the basis that they could surmount it.  I got the feeling that Verdi was throwing the orchestral kitchen sink at things, both as to volume and complexity, though Aida-like, he thinned things out for the more poignant moments.

I’ve left it too late to do a laundry-list of the cast.  I enjoyed it. If I didn’t have other things on my mind I’d try to get to see it again.

There was a funny moment in the scene where Wurm forced Luisa to write the letter.  As Luisa warbled her distress, Daniel Sumegi as Wurm reclined on the sloping stage and ogled her with glee: her misery was his pleasure – she would be his and what a beauty she was!  Maybe he played it a bit broadly but just behind me and to my left it provoked some laughter out loud.  I don’t think it was laughter at the opera for being ridiculous – rather, it was laughter in response to what Sumegi was doing.  They weren’t guffaws, by any means.  I thought it was funny too in a hiss the villain kind of way

Mr Licata, the conductor, however, didn’t see it like that – he turned to the audience and gave a most spectacular and prolonged glare at the presumed source of the laughter – even whilst LM’s plaint continued.

I think he was wrong: people were not laughing at the opera, but with it.

If that is what Licata is like with the audience, I hate to think what looks he might be giving the orchestra.

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