The girl next door

Verdi’s marvelous yet neglected Luisa Miller finally returns to the Met later this month after an absence of a dozen years so “Trove Thursday” provides a preview with a fiery broadcast featuring another “pirate queen” in the title role, the prodigiously versatile Romanian soprano Nelly Miricioiu, abetted by Vladimir Galouzine and Alexandru Agache

One thinks of Miricioiu as one of those sopranos who sang “everything” but of course that’s an exaggeration. German opera never figured in her repertoire and Yaroslavna may be her only Russian role. But she excelled in many many Italian and to a lesser degree French 19th and early 20th century works. Quickly scanning some “pirate” lists of broadcasts and in-house recordings I counted at least 50 operas performed by Miricioiu who particularly excelled in bel canto works.

She did of course all three of the so-called “Tudor Queens” along with other Donizetti works like Caterina Cornaro and Maria Padilla and even Lucia. Although she didn’t perform all that often in the US over her long career Washington DC did hear her in Bellini’s Norma and Il Pirata. The grand Rossini heroines were absolutely hers—Semiramide, Ermione and a wonderful 1988 Armida.

That video comes from Amsterdam where she sang many operas in concert and became the city’s de facto “cult diva” effectively replacing its previous one, Magda Olivero.

As any true prima donna should, she dutifully embraced Meyerbeer—Isabelle in Robert le Diable, Valentine in Les Huguenots and even the cantata Gli amori di Teolinda. She also ventured into verismo with the title roles in Francesca da Rimini, Iris, Adriana Lecouvreur and Fedora along with the inevitable Puccini: Butterfly, Manon, Tosca and Mimi (her 1989 Met debut role). Elena in I Vespri Siciliani, a specialty of hers, accounted for her only other Met appearances 16 years later.

She may be best known to the general public through her association with Opera Rara for whom she made several complete opera recordings, standouts in an otherwise rather scant commercial discography. I especially enjoy her “Rossini Gala.”

The first of only two times that I heard Miricioiu was a concert performance of Mercadante’s Emma di Antiochia in London in 2003 given either just before or just after the studio sessions for its Opera Rara CD.

The work wasn’t particularly memorable but she certainly made an indelible impression performing with a striking old-school diva grandeur that never veered into camp. She was less successful in a later appearance at New York City Opera as the heroine (?) of Handel’s Agrippina, a role I believe she took on rather late in the game and which didn’t really suit her perhaps as 18th century music never figured in her career.

I only saw Galouzine perform Russian operas at the Met and at BAM although he did sing a bit of Otello at a then-Kirov Opera gala at the Met in 1998. Miricioiu’s compatriot Agache sang four Verdi roles at the Met: the only one I heard was Simon Boccanegra nearly twenty years ago which was impressive. Now 62 he still sings regularly at the Hungarian State Opera starring in a new production of Un Ballo in Maschera next month.

I have never understood Luisa’s relative rarity compared to other Verdi operas. Works composed after the 1851 Rigoletto watershed are of course the bread-and-butter cornerstones of nearly every opera house while those written before it are done far less often–Macbeth and perhaps Nabucco being the main exceptions. I’d personally be all for seeing both Ernani and Luisa (composed just two years before Rigoletto) far more often—and maybe skipping Aïda altogether.

Everyone knows its tenor warhorse “Quando le sere al placido” but the entire opera is altogether involving. I’d rank the third act of Luisa—from its haunting choral introduction through its superb soprano-baritone and soprano-tenor duets to its enthralling concluding trio—as among the greatest scenes in all of 19th century Italian opera.

By happy coincidence the Brooklyn Academy of Music will be hosting in June a rare opportunity to experience Schiller’s 1787 tragedy Kabale und Liebe on which Luisa Miller is based. It will be performed in Russian (!) by the Maly Drama Theater of St. Petersburg.

As I can’t get enough of Verdi’s great Schiller adaptations I popped down last weekend for the opening of the Washington National Opera’s new production of a four-act Don Carlo. Parterre’s DC correspondent Harry Rose will do a full review when he returns from Italy but I’ll just offer that an impressive nearly all-American cast did a heroic job of overcoming the idiotic stage design and some of the worst Verdi conducting I’ve heard since Lorin Maazel mangled the same opera at the Met in 2013.

Standouts were the plush but biting Eboli of Jamie Barton, Russell Thomas’s unusually sensitive Carlo and Quinn Kelsey ravishing in his first-ever Rodrigo (did Verdi write a more beautiful baritone aria than “Per me guinto”?) These three combined for a riveting Garden Scene, the evening’s high point. Performances continue at the Kennedy Center until March 17.

Verdi: Luisa Miller

Netherlands Opera
15 March 1997

Luisa — Nelly Miricioiu
Federica — Catherine Keen
Rodolfo — Vladimir Galouzine
Miller — Alexandru Agache
Walter — Peter Rose
Wurm — Barseg Tumanyan

Conductor — Graeme Jenkins

Luisa Miller can be downloaded by clicking on the icon of a square with an arrow pointing downward on the audio player and the resulting mp3 file will appear in your download directory.

“Trove Thursday” podcasts since the series began in September 2015 remain available from iTunes for free, or via any RSS reader.