Car stands out in problematic Verdi

LUISA MILLER

Opera Australia

State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne

Monday May 16

Nicole Car (Luisa)
Nicole Car (Luisa)

It’s not really a hard sell, Luisa Miller; with a sharply-defined set of principals, some stirring, sometimes thrilling pages and a simple plot (albeit one with a few odd twists), the work could be an attractive proposition, especially welcome to finish the national company’s Melbourne autumn mini-season which otherwise walked through two repertoire staples.   For most of us simply a text-book name, one of the 15 or 16 early works by Verdi that largely remain unknown (with the exceptions of Nabucco and Macbeth), this opera represents a turning-point, the commentators say, where the composer’s fully-formed voice breaks into maturity and a buoyant originality that marks everything that follows.

This is a co-production with the Opera de Lausanne, in which house it was first staged over two years ago, and follows on from its appearance during the Sydney spring season in February this year.   From the northern capital’s staging, only the female singers have been transplanted to Melbourne  –  Nicole Car a sterling heroine, Eva Kong as the lightly-sketched confidante/villager Laura, and Sian Pendry taking the role of the other woman, Duchess Federica.    Tenor Riccardo Massi, who has sung in Sydney at least twice before, makes his Melbourne debut (I believe) as Luisa’s high-born lover, Rodolfo.  The remaining male soloists are all familiar home-grown faces: Michael Honeyman worked through the part of Luisa’s father; Steven Gallop added to his catalogue of villains with Wurm complementing his Nourabad from the company’s The Pearl Fishers; Operatunity Oz winner David Parkin (was it really a decade ago?!) gave his best to the unsympathetic role of Count Walter.

So, a reliable cast at work.  Why, then, was the effect so tedious?   Verdi took a gamble giving so much work to a baritone and two basses, especially in the work’s conniving centre.  But he gave them all some fine solos and concerted numbers.   Parkin came to life when Count Walter’s secret (he killed his cousin to get the title) becomes an issue but his self-justifications for stuffing up his son’s life failed to convince and, if you don’t believe that the Count is sincere  –  in this, at least  –  the whole tragedy crumbles.  Honeyman found a specific mode of delivery at Sacra la scelta e d’un consorte and stayed there, the shape of his line consistent but unchanging, so that his injunctions to Luisa and his wounded pride objurgations at the end of Act 1 sounded identical.  Gallop brought a menace to his characterization, his production packed with theatrical points that suggest the moustache-twirling villain, at his most impressive in the Act 2 duet with his master, L’alto retaggio non ho bramato, where both acknowledge their criminal past.

Pendry gave a cogent, dramatic account of the duchess, showing a fine balance between optimism and doubt in the opera’s central scene where Luisa is forced to lie that she feels no love for Rodolfo.   Yet you might reasonably have expected a more ample sound from the singer, particularly when her hopes increase that her wedding will take place.  Possibly it was director Matthew Barclay’s vision that Federica has something of the tightly-laced and snippy about her; I can’t find that in the music or in the actual dialogue that she conducts with Rodolfo on her first appearance.

Car sang with excellent point and clarity, giving an appropriate excitement to her opening L’o vidi e ‘l primo palpito, then making her over-wrought Tu puniscimi, O Signore the closest thing this production got to a show-stopper (it didn’t, but that’s more a comment on us than on Car and her fine clarinet support), and easing the weight of a lengthy double-death scene through an unerring command of her upper range and a clear awareness of her dramatic situation in duet with Massi for Ah piangi; il tuo dolore and in the concluding trio.   Luisa is cursed from the start, pulled from pillar to post by practically everybody with whom she interacts, a pitiable if conscious victim; Car’s gift was to draw a credible personality, one who gives in to Wurm, to the Count, to her father, to Rodolfo, but still has enough spirit to wave a rebellious flag  –  one that fails but you believe that her attempts are real, not just token efforts.

Massi’s Rodolfo proved to be the production’s most unsettling element – apart from the staging which stretched tolerance to an unnecessary degree.   His power stayed vigorous from the T’amo d’amor ch’esprimere duet where the lovers are at their short-lived happiest, through the argument with his father and consequent entreaties to Federica, continuing through the popular regretful aria Quando le sere al placido that experienced a rousing rendition, and into the final emotional chain that brings Rodolfo from disdain and anger to a revived, if fainting ardour at the work’s end.   Through this sequence, Massi sang with confidence and a resonant clangour, his tenor at full-stretch more often than not and his line full of points where he hoisted himself onto the note rather than attacking it cleanly; a powerful personification, yet in some ways not appropriate for this particular drama.

Conductor Andrea Licata gave Orchestra Victoria every encouragement, rousing a splendid ferment for moments like the conclusion to Act 1 where the drama’s personnel come into open conflict.   In later principal ensembles, the brass sounded over-energetic, although that’s an easy thing to accomplish in this space.   But the stand-out pit element for the duration of this opera’s run is the first clarinet.  Without a program, I can’t say for sure who the player is; the orchestra’s website lists Paul Champion as first desk, Andrew Mitchell as principal bass clarinet.   In any case, Verdi gave the San Carlo player plenty of exposure and his OV successor produced a sensible, present but not obtrusive account of the line.

As able as ever in this season, the Opera Australia Chorus gave good service in their few appearances, including a soft, somehow menacing reading of the Ti desta, Luisa opening serenade.  Not that the chorus is stretched at any point; Verdi kept his fireworks for the ill-fated lovers.   But the choral mix proved amiable and appropriately stentorian in support at climactic points.

The original director, Giancarlo del Monaco, moved the opera’s temporal situation from the early 17th century to relatively modern times, possibly about 1930.  The locale could still be the Tyrol; if so, it’s populated by villagers in perpetual evening dress, all set for a sombre gala.   Luisa wears white throughout;  the male principals affect tails, except for Miller who presents as a refugee from a Downton Abbey shooting party.   As the drama moves forward, the chorus remains outside the main acting space, processing slowly around it during the overture while carrying candles in what appeared to be plastic tubes. Preparing for the corpse-rich final curtain?   It’s hard to say.   Whatever the underpinning rationale, this group stays away from any involvement of a physical nature.

William Orlandi’s set consists of two sculpture groups, one of a bourgeois domestic scene of nuclear family togetherness, the other of a gentleman bent over inspecting what could be a fountain or a civic monument.   Both are white, highly polished and suggestive of nothing so much as Lladro ceramics.   During the opera’s opening sections, these gradually roll upwards until they hang suspended over the stage – which could suggest an inversion of the natural order, if only we were sure what that was.   On the bare stage, Orlandi then employs chairs which the principals sit on (but not for long), or kick aside, or throw around in fits of rage or pique.   At the end, of course, the suspended statuary comes back down to stage level, right-side up.   It all makes for clear lines, a welter of black and white contrasts, minimal visual stimulation which focuses your attention on the music.

But, rather than offering a new locus from which to view the drama, the setting saps at its vitality in this specific staging.   Any concentration on Verdi’s score is laudable, certainly, but in bringing about this focus, the director and his team raise the bar for everyone – and only Car is equal to the challenge.   Too often, you have the impression that the male singers have little ability to shape their lines, that the differences between scenes, between individual lines, have been left unexplored, that getting the notes on pitch and on time is sufficient.  This might explain the interpretative pall that falls over the production early on and which rarely lifts.

With regard to a final puzzle that caused mild perturbation during the drive home, I’m assuming that the melodramatic climax  – where Rodolfo, with his last gasp, shoots Wurm –  misfired because the tenor’s gun, so active in the ludicrously handled duel scene, failed to work, leaving Gallop to strike a pose reminiscent of the central character in Goya’s The Third of May.    The effect of this tableau was to make a mystery of the opera’s final lines, where Rodolfo in extremis says to Wurm, A te sia pena, empio, la morte – and on this occasion did nothing.

The production has three further performances, ending on Friday May 27.