ENO’s production of Verdi’s Luisa Miller challenged musical and storytelling assumptions
I’ve waited a day before committing thoughts about ENO’s of Luisa Miller. There has been tremendous buzz about the production ever since press night, deservedly so it seems to me. At the same time, it would all too easy to go along with the crowd and say the same as everyone else.
Given that opera has so many different facets, taking time to reflect on how and why an experience resonated probably makes for better copy.
The top line message is undobutedly the strength of the voices. Right across the cast too Elizabeth Llewellyn’s smooth edged sonorities driven by unwavering support, kept close to the orchestral line. This created a solidity to the music-making that meant the fascinating score in itself held my attention.
Lewellyn’s voice combined with David Junghoon Kim (Rodolfo) made for some breathtaking duets – powerful expressions of love burnished with gold.
Similarly, bass Soloman Howard (Wurm) could have stood on stage and sung all night and I would have applauded like a mad thing. Like Llewellyn he sings with a consistent through-line, finished off with a warm tone and gratifyingly clear articulation.
What I appreciated most was how the casting challenged my assumptions.
It’s a difficult point to raise without running the risk of falling into a pit of diversity-related errors. There was a moment when the diverse casting spanning one family, and the seemingly unlikely-ness of the Rodolfo-Luisa pairing made me question the motivation casting.
Beyond that, Luisa and Rodolfo seemed less plausible than …. what?
That was when I began to identify what my assumptions were about casting. In short, I assumed I would have more obvious or overt visual cues as to the class divide between the characters. What I saw instead was (perhaps) a more international representation of divisions between race? And I appreciated being made to think about that.
Deeper appreciation of the score
During the production, identifying the assumption had another unexpected consequence: it prompted me to look beyond what I saw on stage and immerse myself more in the music and reflect on how that supported the storytelling.
This triggered a deeper appreciation of what was going on in the orchestra pit, and what surprised me the most where that was concerned were the unusual orchestral textures Verdi had created. To date, Verdi with all of his gilt edge, flamboyance and seeming sentimentality, was somebody I wanted to avoid. Now on the basis of Luisa Miller’s score I want to explore it further.
There was a downside.
I wasn’t entirely convinced about the set. I liked its modernist feel. I really appreciated the house used in a variety of different permutations. I liked the inventiveness of the black ink seeping down the scenic backdrop during the third act. And I really responded to the movement in scene changes.
But this modernist feel demanded less distraction on the surface of the stage. It was the ‘mess’ on the stage which distracted my eye. Odd bits of direction too resulting in groups of dancers moving in different parts of the stage whilst action was going on elsewhere, also created a distraction. And whilst I appreciate that the daubing on the backdrops was important to the ongoing narrative, truth be told I did in the end find it a bit annoying after a while. Gratuitous maybe? I’m not quite sure.
A long conclusion
But there needs to be a parting shot. What was the last thing I thought as I left the auditorium? How very long the death scene felt. In terms of time it extended between ten and fifteen minutes (depending on where you see the deaths beginning), but it felt a lot longer. And I think that might be down to the direction.
There seemed to be a lot of shuffling around, but not very much dying. I’d need to look at the score and the libretto to reflect on exactly why Verdi devoted the time he did to the sequence, but it did leave me wondering whether the pace had dropped a bit.
But let’s head towards the end on a high. The chorus was stunning, in particular when they sang from the front of the stage (The Coliseum feels like quite a barny old place in comparison to the Royal Opera House – I’ve no idea of the exact difference in size, indeed if there is one). When the entire ensemble sang as one my heart nearly burst – a remarkable power that provoked an unexpected emotional response.
Listen to Elizabeth Llewellyn in conversation about the role of Luisa Miller in an episode of the Thoroughly Good Classical Music Podcast.