Mountain high

A pretty Tyrolean peasant girl and a mysterious stranger (nobility in disguise, of course) fall into forbidden romance, which their fathers oppose, romantic rivalries with a widowed duchess and creepy lackey ensue, and everything ends in lots of stabbing and suicide.  Yes, the plot of Luisa Miller is a novella, and a pleasantly juicy one at that. By the time her lover poisons her (and himself, and then stabs his weasely rival), you have to wonder how poor Luisa found the time to float all those high notes up to the stratosphere.  

The evening at the Metropolitan Opera in 1968 documented on this CD has a kinetic energy that feels practically astrological.  At the helm, the young Thomas Schippers leads the orchestra in a forceful and strident reading, maintaining rigid control while racing forward like a sequence out of Guy Ritchie film.  The ensembles take on frightening intensity and speed, with barely a note falling out of place.  In his hands, this is the paperback you won’t look up from until an irate busdriver is shoving you off at the last stop.

Written a few years before Verdi’s string of hits that have stayed in the standard repertory, Luisa Miller looks ahead in texture and melodic construction, while clearly showing the influences of Donizetti and Bellini; something like smashing together Lucia de Lammermoor and La Sonnambula, then injecting the result with steroids.  The vocal lines are long, florid, and can move with incredible speed – especially with Schippers at the podium.

Luckily, the two lovers are Montserrat Caballé and Richard Tucker, two singers with reliable instruments that could turn out fiery performances.  Caballé had triumphed unexpectedly three years before at Carnegie Hall in Lucrezia Borgia, but she was not yet an established star in New York.  This performance shows her out to conquer, pulling out every trick in her bag.  She starts off with an incredible display of turns and shakes, all with an unexpectedly sexy lilt.  Throughout the opera we are treated to an inexhaustible range of vocal colors, pianissimi that soar over the top of every ensemble, and phrases that seem to last beyond the physical capacity of the human lungs.

She is well matched with Tucker, who is in his prime.  Rodolfo is a beefy role, requiring plenty of heroic tenor belting, but also lots of rapid movement, which he handles with ease.  Never a particularly subtle actor, Schippers’ tempi leave him barely enough time to fit in most of his usual sobs and affections.  He is on his home turf at the Met, and the audience’s clear adoration is a spur to Caballé.  When they sing together, one can’t help wondering whether she wants to kiss him or punch him in the face.  At any rate, the pheromones are flowing between the couple, and the electricity is still palpable forty years later.

Sherrill Milnes, who had only joined the Met roster three years before, is a wonderfully fresh Miller (Luisa’s father).  The role foreshadows the conflicted fathers Verdi would later write, only with more florid writing and less emotional depth.  Milnes handles the rapid turns and long phrases with aplomb, while matching his more heavily parted co-stars in intensity.  His third act duet with his daughter, as he convinces her not to commit suicide is particularly vivid – although Luisa will end up dead twenty minutes later anyway.

With a story involving kidnappings, letters denying love to save fathers, and cover-ups of past political assassinations, the minor characters function as little more than plot points.  Ezio Flagello is in strong voice as Wurm, the predatory lackey lusting after Luisa.  Less successful is Giorgio Tozzi as the Count Walter (Rodolfo’s father), sounding leathery and with a rather approximate lower range.  Luisa’s romantic rival Federica is an ungrateful role, just right for  the generic singing of Louise Pearl.

The sound quality is quite clean and balanced for the time, with much of the text easily understandable and noticeably little distortion, if a bit dry.

There are several starry studio recordings of I(including one with Caballé), but they will be hard to return to after this searing live rendition.  This is a work that benefits greatly from a live audience; the increasingly passionate applause whips the cast into a frenzy.  Something aligned in the constellations that particular day, and we’re lucky to be able to savor it long after.