Gran Teatre de Liceu 2018-19 Review: Luisa Miller

Eleonora Buratto & Piotr Beczala Deliver Star Performances In A Mesmerizing Production

By Mauricio Villa
(Credit: A Bofill)

“Luisa Miller,” which premiered in 1849, marks the inflection point from the early Verdi style, strongly influenced by the formal structure of the Bel-canto operas, to the mature Verdi who looked for a dramatic communion between the text, the vocal line, the music, and the characters.

We can even appreciate an evolution within the opera, where the first two acts mostly maintain the recitative-aria-cabaletta disposition while in the third act Verdi looked for a musical continuum. Here we see an intelligent use of the motif from the overture, and the exaltation of the feelings over the mere action of the drama (the duet between Luisa and Rodolfo which ends in a trio with Miller lasts about 20 minutes, while Rodolfo kills Wurm and dies in the last minute of the opera), writing one of the most beautiful endings in opera with anticipates and reminds us of the finales of “La Traviata,” “Rigoletto,” and “Un Ballo in Maschera.”

The theme, based on Schiller’s drama “Kabale und Liebe,” drastically changes the heroic and patriotic plots from his previous compositions to what we could call a bourgeois-opera where the interest of the composer lies in exploring human passions.

A Major Cancelation Replaced By A Brilliant Performance

Teatre del Liceu closed its season with 10 performances of this Verdi tittle, with a double cast which presented the stars Sondra Radvanosky and Piotr Beczala as the main attraction, but which counted with a talented team of young singers and the staging of the brilliant Damiano Michieletto.

Unfortunately, Sondra Radvanosky had to cancel her last performance on the 26th of July due to a strong virus, after having sung successfully the four previous performances. When the assistant director of the theatre stepped onto the stage before the curtain to announce the cancelation of Radvanovsky, there were minor complaints from the audience (which was mostly aware of the cast change), and there were quite a few people at the box office trying to get refunds for their tickets.

Soprano Eleonora Buratto had a tremendous task of performing two consecutive performances of the title role. If you consider that it is really difficult to cast a soprano who can handle the coloratura, high notes, dramatic input and length of this role, you might imagine  how hard it must be two sing two performances in a row.

But Buratto has the vocal technique and stamina to do it, as she proved on the nights of the 26th and 27th of July, closing the Teatre del Liceu season.

Most surprising of all was that she was debuting the role too. She has a dark round timbre with a balance register from lowest to her highest register. Her sound opens up and grows in volume as she goes up, giving a display of several beautifully resonant high Bs and Cs throughout the performance. Her control of the coloratura is absolute, performing clean cadenzas and perfect staccato notes; but above all she possesses a mesmerizing ability to lighten the sound to accommodate to the demands of the role.

The vocalitta of Luisa is mostly high, written above the stave and focused in the middle of the voice; there are minor incursions to low notes but not as much as with Verdi’s early soprano roles. As Verdi was developing the idea of looking for the communion between the drama and the music, his vocal writing was changing too. Although he mostly still kept the structure of its time, it is clear that Luisa’s role is written for a lyrical soprano with agilita, nothing like the crazy roles which are impossible to classify as they go from the lowest to the highest of the tessitura with crazy coloratura lines.

Verdi uses coloratura in “Luisa Miller” in two different ways. First, to define the character as the sweet innocent young Luisa  in her first intervention “lo vidi, e’l primo palpito,” which was a new approach to Verdi in his intent to give more profound psychology through the music. Then he employs coloratura to show outbursts of anger and extreme feelings in her Act two cabaletta “A brani, a brani, oh perfido,” which was the usual use of that period. Either way, most interventions made by Luisa feature florid lines (that is one of the reasons for coloratura or leggera soprano voices to attempt to sing this role ). However, the role also demands weight and depth in the voice in order to confront more dramatic moments like her aria “Tu puniscimi, oh signore” or her duet whit her father in Act three.

Buratto has the perfect voice and technique for this role, sounding volatile and light in her first intervention and consequent scene with the tenor and chorus; she was perfectly on pitch and rhythm in the rotulades and staccati of these passages. But her singing in the scene with Wurm in Act two featured a big dramatic sound and her high B natural in “lo speri in vano” projected with thunderous volume was impressive. Her interpretation of the aria “Tu punisichi” was chilling and dramatic, and she delivered a diminuendo on the last high B natural of her cadenza.

Eleonora featured a light juvenile sound during the quartet where she has to sing constantly above the stave with several high B naturals during ascending legato phrases with no orchestra accompaniment. She gave everything in her Act three duet with  her father, the preggiera and the final trio. These passages featured incredibly strong high notes, including her high C in “Il foglio lacero,” volatile staccato and light sweet tones, piannisimi, and the high D flat at the end of the duet with Miller; it was a feast of good singing that was only bettered by her excellent acting.

Her involvement and chemistry with her colleagues on the 26th were impressive, considering that she had to rehearse and perform with other cast members.

I attended both of her performances and I can attest to the fact that she did not hold back at all during her first performance, singing with complete commitment on the first evening and no signs of fatigue next evening, during which she showed a fresh voice and perfect breath support. Only during Act three could you hear hints of a broken line when going to piannisimo singing,  but it was practically imperceptible and was obviously due to tiredness.

Perfect Tenor(s)

The internationally acclaimed polish tenor Piotr Beczala sang the role of Rodolfo. Beginning his career with Mozart, Bel canto, lighter Verdi roles and French repertoire, he is moving lately into heavier or spinto roles, including even some Wagner like “Lohengrin.”

His timbre has darkened, his voice has grown in the middle register and he is keeping his astonishing high notes intact with no noticeable change in his vibrato.

Therefore he was a perfect fit to sing a lyrical high role like Rodolfo.

The role is written for a tenor able to sustained a tessitura in the passaggio constantly with several ascensions to high notes. We can appreciate this as another change in Verdi’s writing as the tessitura of most of his previous tenor roles is mostly centered in the middle voice and with rare ascensions to high notes.

The orchestration is very light in this opera, especially during Rodolfo’s famous aria “Quando le sere Placido,” which made Beczala’s voice audible throughout. Beczala’s method of voice production reminds me of the tenor Nicolai Gedda; he covers the voice in the pasaggio zone and the sound becomes muffled and guttural, loses projection and the timbre is not always pleasant, interfering with the diction as well. This allows him to rise up to secure high notes, though they have no squillo or strength

After a brief recitativo, his first intervention is a scene with Luisa, Miller and the chorus where he sings the same vocal line as Luisa with continuous ascensions to high B flats in a fast and light melody; Beczala show the facility in the higher register during this passage. During his next scene with Federica, Beczala performed with an ardent vocal line and secure high A naturals. But it was difficult to hear his vocal line in the ensemble that closes the first act where he has to sing a high B natural along with Luisa, Laura, with the chorus, other characters and the orchestra in forte. The Polish tenor was more successful in his line “il core io le trapasso” as he had no orchestra when attacking an ardent high B flat.

The highlight of his performance was his aria “Oh fede negar potessi… Quando le sere al placido” which the audience expected anxiously and then rewarded with a huge long ovation which lead to an encore performance of the passage. Beczala sang with deep implication and profound emotion, coloring the long legato phrases and singing the melody with mezza voce. It was surprising that having a high tessitura throughout the whole score, Verdi wrote this aria in the middle register of the voice, not going higher than A flat ( it is on the recitative “Oh fede negar potessi” where the tenor has to battle constantly between high G and A natural ); therefore the difficulties of this page lie in the emotional interpretation and the sustenance of long phrases full of dynamics. I have to admit that it was very thrilling and moving to hear a singer give an encore due to the excitement of the audience.

Beczala closed the second act with the bombastic cabaletta “L’ara , o l’avello apprestami” which features several high B flats and a surprising unexpected high C that the tenor interpolated at the end before resolving on a high B. It was pure exciting ardent momentum that counteracted the lyricism of his aria.

He finished his performance keeping his standard of good singing and  secure high notes, with an ethereal diminuendo on the G  in the phrase “Che morendo sparge il cor” and his last high B flat that concluded his role and the opera in his phrase “La pena tua, mira,” was swallowed by an orchestra playing forte.

I should mention the presence of the young tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz who sang Rodolfo in the second cast. Being a winner of the Operalia Competition in 2005, this Mexican tenor has a lyrical voice with a dark sound, resonant and vibrant high notes and a natural timbre. It has always been said that the tenor voice is manufactured, as the male voice is by nature low and dark, rather than high and brilliant. Arturo’s voice sounds natural and balance, and although he began a bit cold and distant in the first act. His voice gained warmed and  potency, being perfectly audible on his high B natural in the ensemble that closes Act one, giving a moving interpretation of his aria in Act two and interpolating an exciting high C in his cabaletta as well . His last intervention with Luisa was ardent and powerful, culminating his performance with a rotund high B flat.

The Low Voices Rise Up

The American baritone Michael Chioldi performed the role of Luisa’s father Miller. He has a lyrical voice with a pleasant timbre and natural vibrato, ideal for this score. The tessitura of this role lies between low B flat and high G flat, requiring an elegant vocal line and discreet introspective singing. Chioldi sang with nobility and tenderness, rewarding the audience with an amazing high A flat at the end of his duet with Luisa in Act three.

The opera relies on two basses for the characters of Walter and Wurm, with one of the few duets written for two basses that anticipates the Filippo-Inquisitore duet in Verdi’s “Don Carlo.”

Dmitry Belosselskiy interpreted Count Walter with a cavernous basso profundo, imponent volume, and dark timbre. His singing was very resolute in the lower register, with a resonant low F during the duet. That said, he has some trouble in the higher part of his voice whenever he goes over E flat as the notes suddenly lose strength, become weak and unsustained. This role demands several high Fs and a G flat ( which is a extremely high note for a bass voice).

The young talented bass Marko Mimica played the sinister Wurm, who is at the core of the tragedy and to whom director Damiano Michieletto gave lots of attention in his staging. Mimica’s voice, being modest in volume (although it will develop with age and gain strength) is perfectly projected, and his high F overpowered that of Belosselskiy, proving once more that projection is more important than volume. His timbre is perfectly balance throughout his whole register and has a beautiful velvet quality. His incarnation of the devilish portrayal that Michieletto presented was breathtaking; it is incredible how he can do so much with such a minor role creating something so scary, frightening, and menacing with the touch of his recurrent gesture of passing his hand through his hair.

The mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges portrayed the short role of Federica, which has a contralto tessitura lying mainly in the lower part of the register and never going higher than central E. Bridges was resolute in her low notes and perfect in her interpretation of the dolente duchess with her strong stage presence and acting abilities.

Two Masters

Damiano Michieletto is one of the most sought-after stage directors nowadays. Although some of his productions have received a bad reception from the audience, this young Venetian stage director is extremely talented and is directing in the most prestigious opera houses and festivals of Europe.

This production of “Luisa Miller” debuted at the Zürich Opernhaus in 2010 and presents a game of duality and symmetry. It is centered on the fight between classes and the manipulative and Machiavellian intervention of Wurm. It features elements which are usually present in Michieletto’s work, like the revolving stage, the use of external non-singing characters (in this case two kids playing the younger version of Luisa and Rodolfo), and the use of video projections.

The stage is a mirrored hall, with the upper part corresponding to the high class with its immaculate white walls and doors, beautiful lamps and comfortable upholster chairs. The lower part is an inverted version: upside down and belonging to lower classes with its raw walls, broken lamps, and rustic wooden chairs. In the middle there is a small square platform which could be a theatre stage with four extended arms which has four defined spaces representing the four chambers of the four protagonists of the plot. The rooms of Rodolfo and Luisa are represented by their beds, and the desks of Walter and Miller are represented by a table with chair.

There is also a strong, marked difference between the furniture and colors of the noble characters in contrast with the simplicity of the working class. This stage platform turns, and as the curtain rises up during the overture, we see Luisa, Rodolfo, Miller and Walter in their respective spaces with two kids in the center, giving the circular movement a dynamic presentation of the characters.

The platform is constantly turning throughout the performance, creating different spaces or accompanying the action. At the end of Act one, during the concertante, three legs from the platform rise up, closing the middle of the stage and forming the walls of a house, creating and unexpected effect that leaves the character of Wurm sitting tormented, surrounded by the children version of Luisa and Rodolfo who are playing with white balloons under a strong white light. The doors of the mirrored hall that enclose the stage open as we see projections of shadows moving constantly from side to side and staying to look into the stage on the climatic part of the concertante.

During the second act, three walls close up in the middle, leaving only the leg that conforms Luisa’s bedroom with her bed. There are some ghostly projections on the whole set, showing a forest during the bass duet as they recount the murder that Walter committed to obtain privileges, and the letter that Wurm forces Luisa to write appears projected behind Rodolfo during his second verse of “Quando le sere placido.”

During the third act, Rodolfo pours the blue poison into clear water, turning it blue. As the venom takes its effect on the two lovers, there are some beautiful projections all over the stage of blue liquid dissolving into water. The walls lower down again for the final scene, leaving a bed in the center where the two children take off their clothes and embrace each other as Luisa and Rodolfo die in the arms of their respective parents; this final image is mesmerizing.

It is a metaphorical production with its effects utilized in precise moments to display a deep social and political criticism ( this is more present in Schiller’s play as Cammarano left it out to favor the melodramatic twists) and a solid creation of the characters reflected in a strong acting and directing.

The Venezuelan conductor Domingo Hindoyan was a true bright light in the pit, by giving an exciting reading of the score, playing with extreme tempi (the first part of the overture was really slow and Miller’s cabaletta was quite fast, for example),  and finding a perfect balance between the orchestra, chorus, and soloists in the ensembles.

This was true history. From Buratto’s two consecutive performances to Beczala’s encore, to the presence of the talented Damiano Michieletto and Domingo Hindoyan, this was a perfect ending to season. It was also a perfect goodbye to the actual director of the theatre, Christina Scheppelmann, who will move to the Seattle Opera next season.

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