Giuseppe Verdi: Luisa Miller (1849)

Opera in three acts. Running Time: 2 hours 1 minute.

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Censors, censors, censors! This is what happens when Schiller’s third play Kabale und Liebe has the political Mickey taken out of it and is transfigured into one of the most powerful romantic tragedies in opera. The original play is a convoluted web of seedy Teutonic politics (whatever else is new?), but distilling it down to the primary love affair produced what is generally considered Verdi’s most underestimated opera, different than any of his previous works (except maybe Macbeth) and far more akin to his later operas. This review is of a 1974 San Francisco production with Ricciarelli, Pavarotti, and Quilico.

SETTING: Tyrol, mid to late 18th century. Count Walter, whose position is of dubious origin, is so determined to have his son marry his widowed cousin that he blackmails the woman his son loves into signing a fake letter declaring love for the slimiest villain in all opera. This gets his son to consent to the wedding ceremony, but he has one last deadly chaser….

LINK:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qIH7LPuMCjI&t=54s

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: (50 minutes)

0: The overture ** is based on a single theme (which is possibly why Forman didn’t give it even a star ?) but is a full on symphonic piece in its own right (although no reference to it is made again in the opera until the third act). I personally really enjoy it.

Scene 1: A village square in the Tyrol.

10, 13: After an opening chorus that could have been cut and pasted out of the score of Bellini’s La Sonnambula, the first items of note (such as they are) are Luisa’s cavatina *, full of trills and thrills, and the most bouncy love duet in all opera when Rodolfo arrives as Carlo * as Miller and the chorus chirp away and the village church bell rings.

18, 22: Miller is confronted by the evil Worm (a man, not the vermes equivalent of Rodan although they are equally destructive) and tells him that arranged marriages * are not his thing: Worm wants Luisa for himself and reveals that Luisa’s boyfriend Carlo is really Rodolfo, the son of the local Count. Miller responds to this bit of bad news with a fiery cabaletta **.

Scene 2: A room in Count Walter’s castle.

25, 29: Count Walter’s reflection on his son’s behaviour (with ironically no reflection on his own) *. The Count wants his son to marry his cousin, the widowed Duchess Frederica. They argue over an Oktoberfest tune * just before she arrives.

31, 33: The Rodolfo-Frederica duet starts off with childhood recollections *, but the best movement is the last ** when they agree against marriage (Frederica rather unwillingly) as Rodolfo admits he loves another woman. A typical tenor-mezzo affair in which the boy gets the melody, but not easily forgettable.

Scene 3: Miller’s home.

43: First, Verdi pulls off hunting horns far more effectively than Wagner. Second, even his usage of off-stagers is better. The plot moves along in recitative as Miller reveals “Carlo” to be Rodolfo to Luisa, and that he is marrying Frederica. Rodolfo arrives, straightens out that although he is not Carlo, he isn’t marrying Frederica and he wants to marry Luisa. Count Walter arrives and we go into something that is between recitative and not quite arioso as father and son confront each other and the Count orders the arrest of Luisa and her father. It culminates in a psychotically amazing ensemble *** (watch out especially for Luisa’s vocal line, and the high As!). The act ends with Rodolfo threatening to reveal how his father ended up as Count and Luisa is released.

ACT 2 (35 minutes)

Scene 1: Same.

0, 5, 11: The act starts immediately with the chorus telling Luisa what a miserable time her father is having in the Count’s prison *. Worm arrives and tells her that if she signs a forged letter claiming to love someone him which will be given to Rodolfo, her father will be freed. At first she refuses in a waltzing cavatina **. Worm almost breaks into an aria, but it falls flat only to return and develop and then fall again only to form a brief cabaletta for Luisa as she declares her hatred for Worm *.

Scene 2: As in act 1 scene 2.

14: The scene is divided into two numbers: First, a duet ** in which the Count tells Worm that Rodolfo is on to them which has the most debonaire tune in the clarinets.

19: Second, a grand quartet *** for the Count/Worm and Frederica/Luisa. No great tune, but that pathos of Luisa’s break down as she produces the letter carry the scene to a fine conclusion.

Scene 3: A hanging garden in Count Walter’s castle (blame the libretto, not me!).

26: Rodolfo gets the fake Luisa to Worm love letter and believes in its authenticity and he embarks on one of those beautiful mid-19th century Italian tenor arias about romantic loss **.

33: Worm comes on and is challenged by Rodolfo over Luisa (Worm fires his pistol into the air) alerting Walter to come on and tell his son that now there is a change of plan, he can marry Luisa. Of course, Rodolfo doesn’t want her now that he thinks Worm has gotten to her so he consents to marriage with Frederica. The orchestra makes the most of this finale **.

ACT 3: Same as Act 1 Scene 3 and Act 2 Scene 1: Miller’s House. (35 minutes)

0: Scary theme from overture returns finally as the chorus ** and the otherwise irrelevant Laura comfort Luisa as preparations are being made for Rodolfo’s wedding to Frederica.

7, 13: The Luisa-Miller duet ** starts off with happy mad scene soprano flourishes as she goes into details about her suicide pact with Rodolfo (this factors more in Schiller’s play and its late introduction in the opera’s narrative is probably a little awkward). He strongly pressures her to forget Rodolfo and travel the countryside with him instead. It builds to a grand finish before dying out and coming out on the other side as a ballad tune **.

17, 23, 28: Luisa’s prayer *, minimally placed between two bits of organ music, I missed it. Rodolfo arrives and poisons a jug of lemonade (which they drink after he learns that she wrote the letter). They duet *, this is a bit more stock until she reveals the circumstances that led to the letter and admits she only loves him, he then revealing that they have both drunk poison * leading to a brilliant operatic freak out.

31: The concluding trio *** Luisa/Rodolfo/Miller, at first Luisa as the glowing dying soprano with the two men bitterly confronting each other but then taking off in the last two minutes with a celestial melody just as Luisa dies. Rodolfo stabs Worm to death and drops dead in front of his father as they arrive to collect him for the wedding to Frederica.

COMMENTS:

Luisa Miller is one of my favourite Verdi operas, in fact I own three different recordings of it. It isn’t one of his very best, but it is probably one of the handful that I really cherish. It is also one of his most reviled or at least ignored. Why this is so I cannot fathom. It is true that, following the generally lauded overture, the first twenty minutes are also the most boring (even idiotic in all honesty), but there is so much here that is worth any opera lover’s time. The ending is rather quick (not rushed, quick) with three deaths occurring in less than 30 seconds (this must be a record for any opera not written by Meyerbeer or Wagner) and it is odd that we never hear anything about the suicide pact until act three when Schiller’s play is almost upfront about it. The adaptation which was required by censors forced all the focus on the romantic relationship between the son of Count Walter and Luisa, thus the Liebe became the focus of the Kabale. The original play is, frankly, blunt and exposes multiple levels of corruption at a German petty royal court including the keeping of mistresses (not just one, entire seraglios of mistresses), the selling of subjects as mercenaries (particularly to the Americans), massive wastes of money on hunting and balls, and the drugging and abduction of both males and females and their enslavement (usually as labourers or as prostitutes respectively), in order to generate what little revenue the court is able to live off of because they are perpetually broke (this was apparently before Deutsche Bank).

The opera is an alpha by my standards, but if you want some more character explanation I suggest reading below or the play’s Wikipedia page: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intrigue_and_Love as nearly all sources on the play are in German.

The only character who is basically unchanged is Worm. Miller is not a poor old widower soldier but a deeply religious middle-class musician who has a living wife and is eventually seduced by Walter’s money. Luisa is not nearly so naive (this is amplified by the fact that Schiller describes her as the “most beauty example of a blond”, which has to be the most creepy and type-casted note about any leading character in any play ever) thus making the suicide pact more logical, but she is also very religious and dies a virgo intacta. The encourager in her relationship with Rodolfo, or rather Ferdinand, is her mother, who is the family social climber, albeit also the one who completely lacks a backbone. Ferdinand is, like Rodolfo, psychotically possessive of Luisa and murders her under the suspicion that otherwise she will belong to another, but is at the same time an early romantic era idealist who is passionate about the welfare of the lower classes and does not care at all about Luisa’s middle class social status when it comes to her as a prospective wife. The Count, or rather President (German definition, not what we Anglophones are thinking) von Walter, attained his position by personally murdering his predecessor (this is the secret Rodolfo threatens to reveal in the opera, although it appears that Worm may have actually done the deed). Frederica is based on an English character, Lady Milford or Joanna von Norfolk, the mistress of the unseen Prince who is the highest member of the nobility in the world of the play. She is probably the most complex (but likeable) of the characters (although she contributes the least to the main plot, forming a complex sub-plot of political intrigue centred on herself) which is also probably why Frederica is the most dull of the six principles in the opera.

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14 thoughts on “Giuseppe Verdi: Luisa Miller (1849)

  1. I’m immune to this one, I’m afraid.

    I listened to Maag’s recording with Pavarotti, Caballé, & Milnes a couple of years back, and stopped two-thirds in because I couldn’t find anything interesting in the score after the overture; I just found it depressing to listen to.

    I watched the recent Met production at the cinema, and was bored; Domingo was also miscast. (Retire already! He’s famous; he’s a legend. Why spoil it by becoming a baritone again?)

    The overture, though, is splendid.

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      1. Oops, I forgot to tell you, Fervaal has never been recorded completely. There are heavily edited recordings of the opera, but they all cut around a third of the total score. The one I heard was about 95 minutes long, which is probably a fraction of its actual length. Try doing “highlights from Fervaal” or something, I’d really like to know what you think of it!

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      2. If you insist, I’ll do a “presentation”. I have 15 newspaper articles (some running to 15 pages!) to read.

        R e v e n g e ! ! ! ! ! !

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      3. Well, I’ve lost all the music that was on my hard drive.

        It’s irreparable.

        That’s about eight years’ worth of opera, plus scores, articles, books, illustrations, photos, costume designs, & sets.

        That’s opera alone.

        Then there’s classical music in general; rock & pop; film scores; a couple of months of radio plays; movies, TV shows.

        And now I have to either upload my entire opera collection – again – and / or raid YouTube.

        Supply your own expletive.

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    1. Reconstruct very, very slowly. It’s too tedious to do it progressively. I’m visiting home this weekend, so I’ll upload the Massenets and Meyerbeers, at least.

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