While not among Verdi’s most widely performed works, Luisa Miller (1849) is still fairly often seen on the stages of the world’s opera houses. This new version by Prague-born director Barbora Horáková provides a contemporary, minimalist take on Verdi’s tragedy of shattered childhood dreams. The English National Opera’s production is at the Coliseum in London until 6 March.
Childhood sweethearts Luisa and Rodolfo are deeply in love. But when Rodolfo’s powerful father Count Walter insists his son must make a politically expedient marriage, the lovers’ hopes of happiness begin to unravel, with tragic consequences.
The production starts with two children, representing the young Luisa and Rodolfo. They daub the white screens with the word amore and with love hearts. They return at various parts throughout the opera, representing young love, innocence, what is lost in growing up. It’s a cute touch.
But this is followed by a strange circus-like scene with acrobatic dancers and a large – though very fine-voiced – chorus in which the young Luisa is taken from her father and then segues straight into grown-up Luisa’s birthday. It doesn’t really make sense and that rather sets the tone for the rest of the opera.
The setting is stark – just white screens painted with black graffiti. It offers no sense of time or place, leaving you with the disorientating feeling that the opera is being performed in a vacuum. The design is so minimalist it’s barely there. There’s really not a lot to look at.
Being generous, you could argue this is deliberate to draw attention to the score and singing. And these are sublime.
Korean tenor David Junghoon Kim as Rodolfo is possessed of a searingly beautiful voice. An alumnus of the Royal Opera’s Jette Parker Young Artist Programme, he is at turns subtle and intense. His performance of the opera’s best-known aria “When in the evenings in the calm” (or “Quando le sere al placido” in the Italian) is an utter joy and the audience breaks into a well-deserved round of spontaneous applause.
Equally impressive is British soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn. The former ENO Harewood Artist’s rich-toned, agile soprano easily handles the role’s coloratura and lyric requirements. Her acting is also excellent, as is that of mezzo-soprano Christine Rice as Duchess Federica; she is also in fine voice.
They are ably supported by baritone Olafur Siggardson as Miller and bass James Creswell as Count Walter. Soloman Howard’s Wurm is a brooding, sexy presence in almost all scenes. The American’s bass is gloriously velvety.
The music, under the baton of British conductor Alexander Joel, is simply stunning. The English translation of the libretto has been sensitively handled by Martin Fitzpatrick.
This is very much a production to listen to – but if you actually want to see Luisa Miller you might be disappointed. Performances run on selected dates to 6 March. Tickets are on sale now.
Elizabeth Llewellyn as Luisa and David Junghoon Kim as Rodolfo in the ENO’s new production of Verdi’s Luisa Miller (Tristram Kenton).