On Saturday afternoon I wen tto the Met Opera to hear one of Verdi's early operas, Luisa Miller, the 1849 work based on an eighteenth century play Kabale und Liebe ("Intrigue and Love") by Friedrich Schiller.
This was the first time I'd ever seen this opera, but that's not to say it's infrequently performed. In fact, it's considered one of the most significant of Verdi's early career and according to many musicologists marked the beginning of his middle period when he finally achieved the international fame he so well deserved. Not that the opera's history was an easy one. It only came to be written after the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples refused to release Verdi from a contract that had been signed without his consent by his publisher Ricordi. There followed a series of byzantine intrigues, themselves worthy of an opera, in which the theater threatened to sue the librettist, Salvadore Cammarano, with breach of contract for failure to deliver a finished text. When Verdi, too honorable to desert his associate, finally capitulated he then found his first choice of subject, L'assedio di Firenze ("The Siege of Florence"), was off limits because it was too politically sensitive for the censors' tastes. It was only then that the choice fell on Schiller's play that in its turn also required substantive changes in order to avoid the wrath of the censors. In the end this proved an advantage as it allowed composer and librettist to focus on the love story between Luisa and Rodolfo to the exclusion of the political elements that had formed the crux of Schiller's play.
As one reads the history of Luisa Miller, one is impressed by the manner in which Verdi sought to accommodate Cammarano. Certainly, at least as outlined in the Met's program notes, he was far from the imperious composer one usually associates with Italian opera. The description furnished is worth quoting as it provides a great deal of insight into the working arrangements between composer and librettist:
"Cammarano envisioned an aria for Luisa, a solo quartet, and an aria for Rodolfo, while Verdi wanted a duet for Luisa and Wurm, another for Wurm and Walter, the quartet, an aria for Rodolfo, and 'then something else well suited for the end of an act.' ... After the usual complex negotiations were done, the two men together provided the second act with a chorus; a scena and aria ('Tu puniscimi, o Signore') for Luisa; a recitative, scena, and duet for Walter and Wurm ('L’alto retaggio non ho bramato'); a quartet for Luisa, Federica, Walter, and Wurm ('Presentarti alla Duchessa'); and a scena and aria for Rodolfo ('Quando le sere al placido')."
This season's revival of Luisa Miller - the first in more than ten years - was originally to have been conducted by James Levine. Following his summary ouster as Music Director Emeritus in December, the thankless task of replacing him was given to Bertrand de Billy, currently chief conductor of the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra. It was in my opinion an unfortunate choice.
In contrast to the conducting, the singing was uniformly excellent. Soprano Sonya Yoncheva in the title role and tenor Piotr Beczała as Rodolfo displayed real chemistry together. The latter's Act II aria Quando le sere al placido was one of the performance's high points while Yoncheva's Act III duet with her father La figlia, vedi, pentita was truly touching. The real star of the afternoon, however was Plácido Domingo in the role of Luisa's father in yet another of his late career performances as a bartione (though he's still listed as a tenor in the program notes). This true opera superstar had such a commanding presence that he effortlessly stole every scene in which he appeared.
The 2001 production by Elijah Moshinsky was a dingy monochromatic affair. Why it was found necessary to move the setting from the grandeur of the Tyrolean Alps to the squalor of early Industrial Age England is beyond me.