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Luisa Miller

by on 14 February 2020

Provocative Physical Experience of Music

Luisa Miller

by Giuseppe Verdi, libretto by Salvadore Cammarano

English National Opera at the London Coliseum until 6th March

Review by Suzanne Frost

With the ambition of showing more new productions than ever before, ENO has invited Czech director Barbora Horáková, winner of the Newcomer Award at the International Opera Awards 2018, to interpret Luisa Miller, one of the lesser known of the twenty-six operatic work by Giuseppe Verdi, the “daddy of opera”, as he is introduced in the programme notes. A huge shout out to ENO’s editorial team for producing fantastic texts and truly delivering on the promise of making opera accessible to everyone. My ten minutes studying the programme were possibly my favourite bit all night.

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Horáková’s Luisa is a highly sophisticated bit of Regietheater and went down a storm in Wuppertal last year – but in the UK, things are just not quite so, and audiences are often rather resistant to a directorial concept. Usually I am all up for productions that are more “out there” but in this case I tend to disagree. Horáková’s opera as psychological study is clinically precise, yet oddly lacking in drama. It looks slick and sophisticated in its white cube and neon lights aesthetic but leaves me feeling very little.

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For Verdi, adapting Schiller’s drama Kabale und Liebe (Intrigue and Love) marked a change from epic stories towards the domestic, the power structures within the family. Horáková sharpens the focus even more and zooms in solely on fathers. Terrible fathers. Miller, a retired soldier loves his only child Luisa obsessively. Mostly though, he loves the idea of Luisa as a child. Constantly looking through a handful of Polaroids of his baby girl, the stage is swarmed by a bunch of creepy clowns and balloons as for a kid’s birthday party, while the grown-up Luisa (Elizabeth Llewellyn) is carried in like a corpse in a funeral procession – the fact she has become a woman is apparently already a loss to this father. The fact that she is in love with another man is unbearable to him and so he jumps at the chance to ruin her blossoming relationship with childhood sweetheart Rodolfo.

Luisa-Miller-2504Rodolfo’s own father Count Walter is a villain of an altogether different calibre. When we meet him, dressed like an oil tycoon, foot nonchalantly placed on a barrel, he seems to get a delivery of a twitching naked human being in a plastic bag. The abuse he then lays on this helpless boy is harrowing to watch, though it involves nothing more than black gloopy paint. And once that can of paint has been opened there is literally no stopping it! Absolutely everything and everyone gets smirched in the stuff. As symbolism goes it is fairly simplistic. The sweet and silly white clowns are being infiltrated by some bad clowns in black, a well-used group of dancers (choreography James Rosental) that have a mild S&M – naughty-sexual-awakening vibe about them. All the clowns are pretty creepy and maybe that’s the first thing we tend to always get wrong about children and childhood: it is not all sugar and spice and glorifying it and holding on to it past its sell by date is never healthy.

Luisa-Miller-1786The aptly named Wurm, the plotting scheming super villain, is lurking in the corner like a black spider casually smoking Marlboros waiting for the perfect moment to strike. He is literally the personification of sin. He is also hot as hell, thanks to Salomon Howard’s six-foot something presence and sleazy raised eyebrows. An interesting twist to have the unpleasant Wurm look so fine in his shiny boots. What a horrible personality he must have that he has to resort to intrigue and blackmail to get the girl…

Luisa-Miller-1386Rodolfo may be the one who made Luisa fall in love, but he is also far from the cute little kid we saw in the overture. His father is obviously a sadist who keeps little boys in plastic bags, enjoys slicing cuts into his prisoner Miller, encourages the fiancée of choice, the countess Federica, to shoot arrows into the heart of an upside-down crucified straw puppet and takes bets on his son proving his masculinity in the boxing ring. But Rodolfo has the capacity to be just as manipulative, dramatic, impulsive and cruel. Yes, he is damaged, but he is also damaging. Full of mistrust and self-pity, he immediately jumps to the conclusion that Luisa must be a “treacherous harlot” who deceived him. “You must show compassion” he demands of the woman he just wilfully poisoned, the very personification of the jealous stalker ex, and goes on to curse absolutely everyone but himself.

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Luisa, literally driven mad by the demands of men, sings some fabulous coloratura with a blank face shocked by trauma in a nice Ophelia-like mad scene. Watching her die, her father bemoans “you were supposed to be my comfort as I grow old”. Wow. It is quite tricky to root for anyone in this production and very hard to care as well. Funny enough it is the silly old Miller who for all his flaws at least provokes some pity. Olafur Sigurdarson makes his character seems the most human, not just a vignette of good-bad or white-black. I found all the paint splotching a bit heavy on the symbolism. However, the bare staging and lack of colour allow for the music and the voices to take centre stage and the daddy of opera really knows how to let a choir have maximum impact. When they are allowed, the singers’ combined voices literally push like an invisible weight right against the chest and as we sit there in our little velvet chairs in the dark it’s a completely physical experience of music. And boy, does he know how to write a melody. My seat neighbour, a giant of a man, was swaying his head to the overture obviously knowing every single note. While obviously a fan of the music, he later nodded off – all the highly dramatic developments on stage somehow didn’t cross this time.

Suzanne Frost
February 2020

Photogrpahy by Tristram Kenton

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