Luisa Miller at Glyndebourne delivers everything a summer music festival can offer: a perfectly rehearsed ensemble, a purpose-built theatre, young but top-of-form artists, a great orchestra, and a willingness to experiment with less-well-known works. This season is being celebrated as a triumph over Covid, after two years of empty seats.
But Covid’s impact went beyond the mask mandate for the audience. Verdi’s joyous chorus of Tyrolean peasants sang invisible and muffled off-stage in the name of social distancing. This story of thwarted love and suicide was already dark, but the absence of the on-stage chorus made it even more so. The protagonists rarely approached one another. The lovers die two meters apart despite the libretto’s words “hold my hands”. The villain falls dead without being stabbed by the hero’s sword. Perhaps this was director Christoph Loye’s comment on how we have lived the last two years.
Social distancing in the orchestra pit obliged the London Symphony Orchestra to reduce by a third the normal complement of musicians. This had the incidental advantage of allowing us to enjoy the voices more fully, without the big sound of a modern orchestra. For the performance of Tristan and Isolde, Glyndebourne chose not to reduce the orchestra, but to put it on the stage with the singers. Such are the artistic challenges of love and Covid.
Covid appeared to inspire even the sets. The entire drama played out in the confinement of a single room representing variously peasant home, palace, church and garden. Much of the action consisted of the singers going in and out of the single door, or failing to do so. As this intrigue of thwarted love and dynastic ambitions grew in virulence, the protagonists hid their true selves more and more from one another, as though they were wearing layers of masks.
Fortunately the singers did not wear real masks, so we enjoyed their glorious voices. A discovery is Mané Galoyan, from Yerevan and Houston, whose effortless and aethereal coloratura provided the evening’s most exquisite moments. Unfortunately, and this is the problem with Luisa Miller, the majority of numbers are written for male roles. There are sequential bass solos, one by the fathers of each protagonist. Russian bass virtuosity was delivered by both Vladislav Sulimsky, with a velvety voice as Luisa’s loving father, and by Evgeny Stavinsky as Rodolfo’s father Count Walter, whose solos resounded with musical thunder.
Italian Ivan Magrì sung the impassioned Rodolfo with suitable fire, while Polish Krzysztof Bączyk as Wurm brought out the banality of the villain’s evil nature with his deliberate but penetrating singing. The only other major female role—that of Laura, Luisa’s aristocratic rival in love—sung by another wonderful Russian, Nadezhda Karyazina, did not get enough numbers to offset the overly male registers in this score.
While the plot of Luisa Miller, adapted from Schiller’s Love and Cabala, is crisp and fast-paced, it does not lend itself to musical balance of contemporary Bellini or later Verdi. Perhaps this reflects the fact that the 35-year old composer was churning out two operas a year in these years (1844-1849).. He was famous enough to be in demand but not well-established enough to turn down commissions. You can almost hear Verdi tossing off the arias here one after the other to meet the exacting deadline for the Neapolitan debut, which was not a success. In contrast, Verdi’s later opera benefited from two-three years of gestation.
Staging Luisa Miller today provides dramatic entertainment and a strong platform for the singers. Because, with the exception of Rodolfo’s “Quando le sere al placido”, its numbers have been mostly absent from well-known recordings of Italian arias, listeners can experience the freshness and lyricism that the young Verdi excelled at. That is the great advantage of hearing less familiar pieces by world-class performers.