by Santosh Venkataraman
“Luisa Miller” is long considered to mark the beginning of Verdi’s “middle period” with themes of class division and an ill-fated romance that foreshadow the composer’s brilliant “La Traviata.” It also came at a time when Verdi was more open to sourcing from outside of his homeland, with the German playwright Friedrich von Schiller’s Kabale und Liebe the material for this work.
The Metropolitan Opera revived a production by Elijah Moshinsky last seen 12 years ago after a 2001 New York debut. This opera requires a powerhouse soprano and tenor combination, and that’s exactly what was on display with Sonya Yoncheva in her role debut as Luisa Miller and Piotr Beczala as Rodolfo in an absolutely glorious opening night.
Among the six operas I have seen in person this season at the Met, this “Luisa Miller” was the best outside of only the supernatural “Parsifal.” This was unexpected since it is somewhat of an overlooked work and because the Moshinsky production is an old war horse with a setting in England that doesn’t bring much to the table. Yet the voices reigned supreme thanks to Yoncheva and Beczala handling the demands of their roles with considerable grace.
Triumphant Under Duress
“Still under the adrenaline after an extraordinary opening night. Probably the most demanding role I have sung, but also the most satisfying. Plácido, Piotr, Olya, Sasha, Dima and Bertrand were exceptional! Viva Verdi! Bravo Met Opera Chorus&Orchestra,” the soprano said in a Tweet.
This message from the Bulgarian soprano after opening night says it all. The vocal demands of Luisa Miller are as intense as any and can be felt in the audience. The ups and downs of the music are difficult to navigate and one can only marvel at how the inimitable Montserrat Caballe performed as Luisa nine times during her Met run in 1968 opposite Richard Tucker’s Rodolfo.
The only evidence of Yoncheva’s high notes showing any strain were in her “Lo vido, e’l primo palpito” in Act one, in which she states that she has met the man of her dreams. The truth is that this aria so close to the start of the performance is written in a way that it is nearly impossible for anyone to pull off.
The rest of her night featured simply spectacular singing. After some tremendous ensemble work near the end of Act one, Yoncheva really delved into the depths of her character in the second act – titled “Kabale or Intrigue” – while simultaneously finding her vocal stride. It is here where she learns that her father has been arrested. Yoncheva displays the shock upon the news and showcases the pain that she is enduring in heart-wrenching fashion.
Yoncheva’s “Tu puniscimi, o Signore” sounded much more fluid and natural in person than in the dress rehearsal clip on the Met’s YouTube channel. Her Luisa has to make the decision to betray Rodolfo and marry Wurm instead in order to save her father, and the conflicted soprano was masterful. It’s no wonder that Yoncheva couldn’t sleep after this opening night.
Bringing Back Memories
There’s a humorous exchange in the Met program in which Beczala jokes with the great Plácido Domingo about wearing his costumes for this opera with Domingo responding that this production is an entirely different one.
One of the headlines for this revival was Domingo marking his 149th operatic role as Miller, the father who defends the honor of his daughter. He had to enjoy sharing the stage with Beczala, who was the vocal equal of Yoncheva on this night.
The Polish tenor received the biggest ovation of this performance with his “Quando le sere al placido” in which he laments the betrayal of Luisa. It was a stunning rendition that showcased his extreme pathos as he glided through the passage with his deep and rich tone; it was as if Beczala was the only person present in the entire opera house for this show stopper and he continued to triumph throughout.
Poison Was the Passion For the Soul
Perhaps the genius of this opera lies in the Act three titled “Poison.” The two lovers both drink the poison that leads to their death as the drama intensifies to its thrilling conclusion.
With the action even more intense, Beczala somehow made his presence even larger. And it was not through singing that was more histrionic but rather with an evenness that exuded his passion and despair.
The duets with Yoncheva in “Piangi, piangi il tuo dolore” and “Donna, per noi terrible” brought this story to an incredible climax and left the audience on the edge of its seats. The tragedy is unfolding in horrifying circumstances and the lovers are both united and separate at the same time, with Yoncheva’s lighter tone an ideal contrast to the darkness of Beczala.
It should be noted that the great Domingo is still listed in the program as a tenor and correctly so. He is an eternal tenor, even as he continues to take on baritone roles that can do nothing to diminish his tremendous legacy.
What is nice about the character of Miller is that it’s in between a comprimario and starring role. While it would be terrific to have a true baritone portraying Miller, Domingo brings tremendous charisma as a performer and a whiff of nostalgia just by being on stage.
Yoncheva was the star vocally of their Act three duet in “La tomba e un letto sparso di fiori” in which she considers taking her own life. Yet Domingo’s fatherly presence was considerable as he consoles her with his “Ah! Nella tomba che schiuder vuoi fia primo a scendere il genitor!” on how it is appropriate for a parent to die before his child. It seems unlikely that a younger man could have pulled off this scene so effectively.
The conductor Bertrand de Billy was superb at allowing the artists on stage to shine and his orchestra never took away from the extraordinary performances we were witnessing.
If there’s a reason why “Luisa Miller” isn’t performed more often beyond needing singers the caliber of Yoncheva and Beczala as the stars, it’s that this work can sometimes drag – particularly through Act three. No such worries exist with these singers in a run that will be an indelible memory for those fortunate to be present. This production figures to only get better over its duration.