By Lynne Gray, PhD
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Sunday, August 16
Verdi’s Luisa Miller ~ 2Hrs and 27Mins
Starring Renata Scotto, Plácido Domingo, Sherrill Milnes, Bonaldo Giaiotti, and James Morris, conducted by James Levine. From January 20, 1979.
Renata Scotto is the bubbly, innocent Luisa, who is very much in love with Rodolfo (a young Plácido Domingo with blond hair! – who actually played her father, Miller, in the last go-around which was almost 40 years later). Rodolfo turns out to be the son of Count Walter (Bonaldo Giaiotti), who has other plans for his aristocratic boy. Enter the evil Wurm (James Morris) whose extortion eventually backfires, but nevertheless destroys the young lovers despite everything Luisa’s father (Sherrill Milnes in a superb performance) does to protect her. James Levine’s affectionate conducting and director Nathaniel Merrill’s production help make this one a performance to treasure.
The work comes from Verdi’s staggeringly productive “middle period” and gave the opera world its first glimpse of the composer’s prolific genius. It is the tale of a pious and sadly naive Tyrolean maiden who is in love with the wrong ‘villager.’ The opera includes several trademark Verdi features a soaring aria for the lead tenor, a nuanced and poignant father-daughter relationship for baritone and soprano, and a sublime, if nail-biting, third act that ultimately ends in tragedy.
The story centers on the deep bond between a father and his daughter as the pair is victimized by a hostile environment they have no power to control. It is an opera very much like its title character—one that has a multitude of genuine virtues and foregoes unnecessary flashiness. In addition to Verdi’s usual high-flying soprano and tenor arias, watch for the rare duet for two basses in Act II, “L’alto retaggio non ho bramato” (I did not covet this high heritage) which also reflects the preponderance of lower voices throughout the score – the dark voices set the mood and are in purposeful contrast to the high tessitura of Luisa’s soprano which thus takes on an additional feel of lightness and purity amidst darkness.
In a nutshell, the first act is sub-titled “Love” and it takes place on Luisa’s birthday. She has fallen for a young man, “Carlo” she met in the village and is looking for him to arrive for her celebration. Her father, Miller, is worried because the man is a stranger. Nevertheless, “Carlo” joins the party and the happy couple sing a wonderful duet. As the villagers enter the church for morning service, Miller is approached by Wurm, Count Walter’s steward. Wurm is also in love with Luisa and determined to stop at nothing to get her. Miller tells him that he will never give his daughter’s hand against her will “Sacra la scelta è d’ un consorte” (The choice of a husband is sacred). Annoyed, Wurm tells him that “Carlo” is actually Rodolfo, Count Walter’s son who is brazenly toying with the affections of young village maidens.
To further his cause, Wurm then informs the Count of his son’s dalliance, and Rodolfo is summoned to the Count’s study. He is told that he must give up his youthful fancies and marry Walter’s niece, Federica, the Duchess of Ostheim to improve the family’s position. Having been friends with her since childhood, and hoping for her understanding, Rodolfo confesses to her that he is in love with another woman. Unfortunately, the Duchess indeed does love Rodolfo and is not willing to be sympathetic or to break off their engagement.
Back in the village, Miller tells his daughter exactly who her lover is. Rodolfo himself enters, admits his deception and swears to them both that Luisa is his only love and will be his bride. Unhappily, the Count has followed him to Miller’s cottage and barges in with armed men, confronting his son and insulting Luisa. Miller, fearing for Luisa, draws his sword to protect her and the Count orders them both arrested. Rodolfo is able to secure their release only after privately threatening his father with exposing that he has discovered the Count and Wurm’s horrible secret and will reveal the fact that they murdered the previous Count in order to steal his title.
As the second act – subtitled “Intrigue” – begins, villagers come to tell Luisa that they have seen Miller being dragged away in chains. Wurm arrives, confirming that Miller will be executed unless Luisa writes a letter to the Count declaring her love for Wurm and confessing to seducing Rodolfo for his wealth. Her impassioned “Tu puniscimi, O Signore,” filled with pianissimo high Cs, is a perfect example of her music expressing the luminescence of her character. She resists as long as she can, but in the end is forced to write the letter to save her father. She now wishes only for death.
Wurm and the Count, of course, see to it that Rodolfo reads the letter – passionate melodies fill this score, but nowhere more than in Rudolfo’s anguished aria “Quando le sere al placido” (When the evenings are quiet). As he challenges Wurm to a duel, Wurm fires his pistol into the air to avoid the confrontation and loudly calls for help. Walter rushes in and convinces his distraught son that the better revenge would be to marry Frederica.
When I tell you that act three is sub-titled “Poison,” you will probably know all you need to at this point. The music is tragically beautiful as we head towards the inevitable, dramatic soprano death. To see just who poisons whom, who lives, who dies and who is left to repent – watch this moving work …. It is Verdi at his mid-career best with a cast to match!
1. Sherrill Milnes as Miller and Renata Scotto in the title role of Verdi’s “Luisa Miller” at the Metropolitan Opera, 1979. Photo Credit: Metropolitan Opera Archives.
2. Plácido Domingo as Rodolfo in Verdi’s “Luisa Miller” at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo Credit: Metropolitan Opera Archives.
3. Plácido Domingo as Rodolfo and Bonaldo Giaiotti as Count Walter in Verdi’s “Luisa Miller” at the Met, 1979. Photo Credit: Metropolitan Opera Archives.
4. Renata Scotto in the title role of Verdi’s “Luisa Miller” at the Metropolitan Opera, 1979. Photo Credit: Metropolitan Opera Archives.
5. Sherrill Milnes as Miller, Renata Scotto in the title role and Plácido Domingo as Rodolfo in Verdi’s “Luisa Miller” at the Met, 1979. Photo Credit: Metropolitan Opera Archives.