So we start a joke: A Bulgarian, a Pole, three Russians and a Mexican guy walk into an opera house in New York City.
The punchline: They create magic!
Yesterday the Metropolitan Opera matinee production of Verdi’s “Luisa Miller” was streamed live in HD to movie theaters throughout the U.S. (and even in several other countries), much to the delight of audiences. The “Mexican guy” in the joke is, of course, none other than Plácido Domingo, that Old Lion of the opera stage, who sang the baritone role of Mr. Miller, Luisa’s papa.
In a backstage interview during one of the intermissions, Domingo explained that, as he got older, he was able to transition from tenor roles to baritone. In fact, in his younger days he triumphed in the hero-tenor role of Rodolfo, here handled ably by Polish heart-throb Piotr Beczała. Who has recently grown a goatee which makes him look a bit Mephistopheles-like, but he still seems like a super-nice guy. Petya explained (also in a backstage interview) how Plácido gave him good advice, how to sing Rodolfo. “You’re a nice guy basically, but in Act III you turn into Othello. So, just sing it like you would sing Othello!”
“But… but… Piotr demurred, “I never sang Othello!”
In this production, all three branches of the Slavic ethnic family were represented: Polish Piotr (Western Slav); not one but two Russian basses (Eastern Slav), not to mention the role of Countess Federica, sung by Russian mezzo-soprano Olesya Petrova; and, last but not least, the diva herself, Sonya Yoncheva, representing the South Slavic branch from Bulgaria. Sonya has been amazing this season, triumphing in a dazzling variety of roles. Her voice gets better and better every time. She was captivating as Luisa, one of the traditional “female victim” roles so predominant in Grand Opera. And I have to say that, personally, even though I don’t think Sonya is “pretty” in the conventional sense, I have grown accustomed to her face, that cute little gap between her teeth, the way she purses her lips when she sings. She has a face that expresses every emotion precisely as the music intends.
Intrigue And Love
Verdi’s opera is based on a play by Friedrich von Schiller which, as wiki points out, “shows how cabals and their intrigue destroy the love between Ferdinand von Walter, a nobleman’s son, and Luise Miller, daughter of a middle-class musician.” Schiller’s play is set at a princely court in Germany in the 1700’s, which explains why the characters have German names like “Walter” and “Wurm” and “Rodolfo”. Names which don’t quite go with the Met opera production setting allegedly in a bucolic English village of 1850. Well, the name “Miller” is as easily English as German, but how many Englishmen do you know who go by the name Wurm? Also, granted that England was a very class-based society in the 1850’s (still is, actually), but it is hard to imagine, even in Victorian England, a simple village man sent to the gallows for the crime of calling the local Count a no-goodnik. Verdi himself (with his librettist Salvadore Cammarano) moved the action from Germany to a Tyrolean village of the 1600’s, which also fits much better with the notion that the local peasantry basically have no rights whatsoever when it comes to the whims of the gentry. A choice piece of village flesh like Luisa, if she fell into the trap of two Russian villains like Count Walter and his henchperson Wurm, truly would have no other options than to hang herself on the nearest tree. One would like to think that in the civilized England of Charles Dickens, she might have a couple of other options. Like appeal to Parliament, or something. Well, maybe I am being naive here…
Anyhow, the English village thing evokes another pet peeve I have against this production: Too many set changes. The opera itself has 2 intermissions. But as if to make the audience even more restless, the music was interrupted several times even within an act, for the incessant scene changes. From the schoolhouse (where Luisa apparently works as a schoolteacher) back to Count Walter’s mansion; and then back to the schoolhouse, and then back to the mansion, and so on. Call me a quibbler, but I have seen Broadway productions, for example Les Miz, in which complicated scene changes were carried out onstage in the blink of an eye. Or, they could buy one of those carousels that spin the different sets around without interrupting the action. Was it really necessary to interrupt the music to break down the schoolhouse set several times in the course of the matinee?
The Duty Of A Father
Verdi’s opera Luisa Miller was his 15th opera and is considered a masterpiece of his “middle period”. As in many of Verdi’s works, the theme of “fatherhood” is prominent. Fathers and sons (example: La Traviata); but especially fathers and daughters (numerous examples, including Rigoletto). Not surprising, as Plácido pointed out in that backstage interview, since Verdi himself had lost his infant children to disease. How can a man possibly deal with such pain and sorrow, except through the catharsis of art?
In a much earlier work Nabucco (his third opera), Verdi set out to tell a Biblical epic and ended up focusing on the intimate family detail of the old lion Nabucco, broken in spirit by the threat to one daughter, and betrayal of the other. Some critics have written, that when Nabucco sings his heartbroken reproach to Abigaille, “Oh di qual onta aggravasi questo mio crin canuto”, this is the moment when “Verdi became Verdi.”
In “Luisa Miller”, there are two sets of fathers: Mr. Miller himself (=the good father); and Count Walter. Alexander Vinogradov, who sings the villainous Walter, stated in a backstage interview that the Count, giving him the benefit of the doubt, believes that he is doing only what is best for his son Rodolfo. The murder, the lies, the threats and the bullyings, all of this was done for the good of ungrateful sonny-boy. If so, then Walter gets his just desserts at the end. Spoiler alert: Rodolfo dies, having poisoned himself (and Luisa). Like a teenager, he explicitly intends his suicide as an act of revenge against Papa Walter. Who knows, though, maybe it backfired, maybe Walter will actually be relieved, since Sonny was the only eye-witness to his (papa’s) murder of the previous Count! By the way, this was Vinogradov’s first time ever singing in the Met Opera House. Sasha stated in the backstage interview that he was initially intimidated by the size of this giant hall at Lincoln Center, but then reassured when he came to experience the exceptional acoustics!
But speaking of Russians… What with everything going on in the news headlines, it was quite fitting that the Met cast Russian basses as the two egregious villains, Count Walter and his henchperson, the aptly named Mr. Wurm. Dmitry Beloselsky sang Wurm with outstanding menace. Asked in a backstage interview how he liked singing the villain, Dmitry explained that he usually sings a good guy, like for example, Zaccaria in Nabucco, and rarely sings “such a disgusting character” as Wurm, but was thoroughly enjoying the experience so far. Verdi even tried a unique experiment by having the two villains sing a bass duet together: “L’alto retaggio non ho bramato” (“The noble inheritance of my cousin”), in which they reveal the murder they had committed in the backstory. The human bass voice is a very special instrument, and it is a rare treat to hear two basses singing together in duet. The piece brought the house down with numerous shouts of “Bravissimi!” I found this youtube video of this same duet, in a much older production, of course, but gives you a good idea how great it is:
And speaking of poison, I realize that I should give at least a very brief synopsis of the plot, to avoid further confusion: So here goes: Rodolfo, son of Count Walter, has fallen in love with a simple village girl, Luisa Miller. Count Walter is determined not to allow the marriage, he has a better bride planned out for his son (=Countess Federica). When Walter confronts the Miller family, Papa Miller insults the Count, basically just tells him where to stick it. Upon which the village gendarmes arrest Papa and say they are going to hang him.
Wurm approaches a stricken Luisa. The only way that she can save her papa from the gallows is to write a letter to Rodolfo, renouncing her love for him. She says she was just playing him for his money and title, and she “confesses” that her true love all along was Wurm! With gun to head, Luisa pens the letter.
Papa is released from the dungeon, but at what price? Luisa is now actually expected to marry Wurm. And Rodolfo is furious that Luisa “betrayed” him. This is where he turns into Othello, and Piotr has to show that he can sing his tenor role in a “darker” key, no pun intended. Rodolfo comes up with the idea of poisoning both himself and Luisa. That way he can get even with both her and his father at the same time — a brilliant plan!
Now, when I watch American crime shows on TV, they always say that poison is a woman’s game. So, like, if poison was used, there is an increased chance that the “un-sub” was a lady. Given this fact, it seems that Rodolfo has some “womanly”, or should we say, “cowardly” features in him. Like, a real manly Othello type would just barge in there and strangle his girl face to face. Not sneakily slip her a mickey, like Rodolfo does. But, to his credit, he drinks some too. And whatever was in that vial — probably Novichok — it works quickly on both of them. Not too quickly that they can’t sing a few more arias and duets. And not so quickly that Rodolfo can’t jump up and stab Wurm with his dagger when he finally sees his opportunity. But still quickly enough that the young people soon die in each others arms with the two elderly fathers glaring at each other over the bodies of their children.
Saving Sonya Yoncheva
I should end my review at this point, but there is just something about Sonya Yoncheva that makes me want to alter history, in order to save her. In a previous review, I rewrote the ending of Otello in order to save her Desdemona from the angry Moor. Now something forces me to put on my thinking cap — what, oh what, could Luisa, when placed into that predicament, have done differently to avoid such a tragic ending?
Well, for starters, she could have communicated better. Which is something my manager keeps telling me I need to do. Granted, Luisa had to write the letter under Wurm’s dictation, he had a gun to her head, she couldn’t let her papa hang, we all stipulate that.
But, having written that letter under duress, wasn’t there perhaps a way she could have gotten word to Rodolfo. Like written a second letter, and had one of her schoolchildren brats deliver it on the sly up to the castle?
Dear Rodolfo, Don’t believe anything you have read in my previous letter, Wurm made me say it against my will. From now on we will communicate in code. Sincerely yours, Your True Love Luisa… [hearts and smiley faces]
Upon which Rodolfo rushes to confront Papa Walter. Seeing that Count Walter is unbending, Rodolfo decides to put into play his final gambit: Blackmail. “Papa, I will ride in my carriage to the Parliament in London and I will reveal how you and Wurm murdered your cousin and took his title. I was an eye-witness to this crime, as you well know…”
Papa Walter caves in, takes the deal, Rodolfo and Luisa can marry. Countess Federica is devastated, but we don’t really care about her. Wurm is framed for the murder of Walter’s cousin and takes the fall alone. He is led away and hung while Rodolfo and Luisa celebrate their joyous nuptials in the local Church of England chapel. Papa Plácido beams proudly, as he gives away the bride…