Cher Public

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.

  • m. croche

    Yes, the plot of Luisa Miller is a novella, and a pleasantly juicy one at that.

    Novella? I bet it’d make a great five-act (spoken) drama. Someone should try it…

    • RosinaLeckermaul

      The Donmar Warehouse in London just did a brilliant revival of Schiller’s LUISE MILLER (as they called it — supposedly the original title before Schiller changed it to INTRIGUE AND LOVE). The play still works though at times one missed Verdi’s music.

      • David

        The play was excellent, but Luise lost out without the music -- a rather bland and one-dimentional character in the play. On the other hand Lady Milford (the opera’s Duchess Federica) really came to life -- helped, no doubt, by being played by the superb Alex Kingston

    • Camille

      Thank you, Manrico, for taking time out from plghting your troth to Leonora and saving your madre, Azucena, to give us this nice, informative review of an opera I hold in high esteem but have not listened to enough to have become thoroughly familiar with all its intricacies. This particular recording looks as though it may be the cure for this lack .

      Further to the discussion on the origins of the libretto, I would like to include some information taken from a book I”m currently enamoured of:

      “Several scholars have advanced the hypothesis that, while in Paris in 1847, Verdi must have seen Schiller’s drama in a French adaptation by Alexandre Dumas pere, premiered at the Theatre Historique on 11 June. While the composer had already mentioned the text as a possible operatic subject in a letter to Cammarano (probably dated 31 August 1846), seeing a French adaptation of it on the stage in Paris created a potential with Parisian boulevard theatre. “Kabale und Liebe”, published in 1783, was not, of course, a French ‘melodrame’ --Schiller called it a ‘buergerliches Trauerspiel’--but from the point of view of the 1830s and 1840s it could be read as a text that embeded some elements of French ‘melodrame’ only to turn them upside down, to show how false they rang to the new Romantic sensibility.

      Dumas’s adaptation, “Intrigue et amour”, was reviewed by Theophile Gautier in revealing terms;

      ‘It may be easier to have our public accept Shakespearean reality, which related to historical and conventional subjects, than the analogous procedure employed by Schiller for modern subjects. The details of bourgeois life, mixed with situations in which the strongest tragic passions explode, often run the risk of provoking a smile. [. . .]. The French public [. . .] has never completely accepted the mixture of the pleasant and the serious; it readily enough accepts the foolish ‘melodrame’, or a familiar scene coming on the heels of a tragic one; but strident laughter which all at once gets entwined with the shock of examlted passions has something about it that still astonishes [our audience].’

      Mutatis mutandis, Cammarano and Verdi probably saw in Schiller’s drama what Gautier had seen, and they surely realised that the potential subversion of the rules that governed French theatrical genres could be transferred into the world of Italian opera once a suitable ‘initial’ generic context in which to place “Luisa Miller” was found. This genre was that of ‘semiseria’. If, in both ‘melodrame’ and ‘semiseria’, ‘crime always appeared odious, and was always punished, sincerity triumphed, innocence was protected by an invincible hand’, Verdi and Cammarano were prepared to turn these maxims on their head. For in “Luisa Miller” crime is odious but is not punished (not Walter’s, at least); sincerity does not triumph; nor is innocence protected by an invincible hand. The world is shown ‘as it is’, and not ‘as it should be’. ”

      To this I can only add a tremulous ‘amen’.

      --the wonderful “Landscape and Gender in Italian Opera--The Alpine Virgin from Bellini to Puccini”,

      Emanuele Senici, author;
      Cambridge Studies in Opera, Cambridge University Press.

  • A. Poggia Turra

    For some reason, I always find myself rooting for the Duchess Federica. Her first marriage was probably not for love, and now she has a chance to marry her childhood sweetheart … only to be thrawted by that harpy Luisa!!

  • mia apulia

    I heard this production in the 60s and have very happy memories of Caballé, especially; it was the first time I had heard her live.

    A bit lately I bought the Caballé studio recording, not nearly as exciting, and with Shirley Verrett as the Duchess, certainly luxurious casting, but she probably could have used her time better.

    I own a LM from a live Milan performance with Caballé and Pavarotti (1976); there are some moments that still take my breath away. Such pleasures!

    • Arianna a Nasso

      Caballe’s studio Duchess is Anna Reynolds. Verrett recorded the role in the mid-60s with Moffo and Bergonzi.

      • mia apulia

        Thank you Arianna; I am truly dotty with the late hour and a long day, not to mention the passing years. I do have the Moffo recording, too, and I have transposed the duchesses in my mind. I have not not listened to it in years, nor have I listened to the Caballé studio recording for years; the Milano recording has been keeping me company more recently.

  • Angelo Saccosta

    The third act of Luisa is something very special with searing emotional intensity, as though Verdi was still grieving for his own two dead children. And likely he was. It was only some twelve years since they had died, and I think a parent never gets over the death of his or her child, let alone two children.

    • semira mide

      Angelo, your observation about Verdi’s emotions and this opera ring true. Even in the first act when Miller tells Luisa that she doesn’t have to kneel to evil, one can’t help but think that this is what Verdi would have said to his own daughter.
      “Prostrata! No!”
      Fra’ mortali ancora oppressa non e tanto l’innocenza che si vegga genuflessa d’un superbo alla presenza”

      “Innocence has not yet become of so little account among men, that an innocent girl should kneel before an arrogant man” ( can’t find author of translation, sorry)

      I have always found those lines very moving ( and timeless)

      • Angelo Saccosta

        Well said, Semira. The father/daughter duets go from glorious to sublime, even when the daughter is a bitch like Abigaille, and they started in Oberto and went on to Aida. Did Verdi finally come to terms only after nearly forty years with the terrible losses he had sustained in the 1830’s ?

        • iltenoredigrazia

          That’s an interesting question. I understand there’s some evidence that he and Strepponi had a child at the beginning of their relationship that was put for adoption soon after birth. Did he “come to terms” with his grief by avoiding fatherhood altogether?

          • Angelo Saccosta

            Yes, Samira. May Jane Phillips Matz first wrote about her in a article in Opera News just before the publication of her magisterial Verdi biography. As I recall a baby girl named Santa Stropellini or Streppini was baptized or entered in a birth registry around 1850, having been put the the “wheel,” a device in churches or convents to receive unwanted illegitimate babies anonymously. Remember that Verdi and Giuseppina did not marry until 1859. Had they done so while her illegitimate children were minors, Verdi would have had to assume legal responsibility for them, obviously something he didn’t want to do.

          • Angelo Saccosta

            Sorry, Signor Tenore. I thought I was still talking to Samira.

      • grimoaldo

        First act finale of Luisa Miller with that passage you mention:

        Luisa: Katia Ricciarelli, Rodolfo: Placido Domingo, Miller: Renato Bruson, Walter: Gwynne Howell

        I remember this production very well, Ricciarelli was perfect in the part and Covent Garden revived it several times with her -- her Rodolfos were Domingo, Carreras, Pavarotti and Bergonzi! I did not realise it had ever been filmed until just the other day when I was glad to stumble upon this clip.

    • grimoaldo

      Searing finale of Luisa Miller with Taro Ichihara Eduard Tumagian and June Anderson Lyon 1988:

  • Clita del Toro

    OT: Riccardo Massi, tenor. This tenor will sing Rhadames later this month. It must be his debut because there is nothing about him on the Met Archives site.
    I listened to a few clips of the tenor including C celeste Aida. Kind of an uninteresting tenor. But who knows?? Here is his Ingemisco:

    • Gualtier M

      I read Riccardo Massi’s online bio and he has an interesting background. He was trained as a swordsman and worked on Italian historical adventure movies as a stunt man doing fight scenes.

      • MontyNostry

        He sounds exciting. I like the ping in the sound.
        It seems he is Anita Rachvelishvili’s fiance!

        • brooklynpunk

  • Feldmarschallin

    Has anyone heard someone by the name of Serena Farnocchia? She is singing Luisa Miller in April and I have never even heard of her. She has a website which has some things like Othello and Figaro. Any thoughts? Vargas and Lucic would of course sweeten the pie as they say.

    • ducadiposa

      Most definitely yes! We’ve had the pleasure of hearing her in Toronto on several occasions including Luisa and more recently, Maria Stuarda (her first appearance here was as Liu). She has a gorgeous, very Italianate timbre/vocal colour. She might not be the most dynamic performer (though in Stuarda I think she surprised everyone in this regard), but she’s certainly not a stick on stage either. Lovely to hear a native Italian in these pieces -- she knows the style for sure. Kind of a Freni-esque sound I’d say in terms of the weight of her voice. I think you’ll enjoy her.

      • Agreed about Farnocchia, especially about her Maria Stuarda which was the most inspired thing that she has done in Toronto. I think playing off the Pendatchanska’s Elisabetta probably helped. She was a fine a Luisa Miller a few years back.

    • MontyNostry

      I saw Farnocchia as Fiordiligi back in 2006 and I liked her — it was a sort of peachy sound. Didn’t she sing Liu somewhere in North America some time ago?

  • Feldmarschallin

    ok thanks will get a ticket then. She is doing Liu in München in Dec.

    • MontyNostry

      Serena as Liu. The timbre is a bit like Cerquetti’s, maybe (though obviously lighter)

      • Feldmarschallin

        well she couldn’t float that ending and to me she sounds nothing like Cerquetti…more like a mixture of Seta del Grande und Freni maybe

        • MontyNostry

          I don’t hear Freni at all in her timbre -- Farnocchia’s tone sounds much more covered, while Freni’s (like Chiara’s) is much more open. Seta del Grande is just a (half-forgotten) name to me, I’m afraid.

  • Regina delle fate

    She now runs a restaurant called La Scala di Seta del Grande, I expect.

    • MontyNostry

      Perhaps Orianna Santunione helps out with the washing up. They might have been second-rate sopranos, but they had first-rate names.

  • Camille

    Caro Gualtier M. & Grimoaldo, the bold defender of Verdi:

    I have read both of your comments earlier regarding this opera and Ernani, for which I thank you (can’t find that thread).

    What I WANT is to hear Rosa Ponselle in the part!!!!!! I’ve always wondered why a portion of it was not recorded or preserved? Perhaps it was not a big success, I don’t know why and have never read contemporary accounts of her portrayl of the povera figlia, Luisa.

    Gualtier, thanks but no thanks for the Scotto/Domingo version; too late for her and not a good fit for him.

    Aside from the Montsy/Pav Scala version, I’d probably settle for Moffo and Bergonzi. I would like to see June, though, and will take a look at Ricciarelli, an ideal Luisa, senza dire.

    I think there is n ancient of days Cetra with someone named Lucy Kelton (or was it Pelton--the Vicar would surely know!)--but have no idea what/who she was.

    Thanks, grim, for finding the Ricciarelli assumption. Will take a look when I can.

    Thank you, fellows, for your advices.

    • The Vicar of John Wakefield

      Sir, Lucy Kelston was yet another horrid American (born in New York it seems) and her gutsy singing on that Cetra set is not a patch on Ruth Packer’s at the old Vic-Wells!

      Jolly good to see Anna Reynolds mentioned here.

      • Camille

        Sir, I am an old lady, therefore, it’s “Ma’am”.

        Please do awaken your flatmate, the haughty and tempestuous Mme. Nelli, to advise her of my imminent party. The centrepiece of which will likely be the breathtaking breakthrough performance of Mme. Poplavskaya in “La Juive” ossia “The Jewish Maiden”, in good, clean English.

        Please have Mme. Nelli indicate in her RSVP her preference of amuse-bouche: popcorn or Pop-tarts.


  • aulus agerius

    Yes, it was Lucy Kelton. However, the raison d’etre was Giacomo Lauri-Volpi. I used to own that set; it was severely cut -- the part of Federica is almost entirely eliminated. I also used to own a broadcast recording of Luisa from San Francisco with Ricciarelli and Pavarotti -- ’74 I think it was. Fabulous. I believe that is also on one of the Richter cdRoms in very low bit mp3.