A dispiriting evening: Luisa Miller at ENO
English National Opera
Balcony B26, £10
12 February 2020
I’m the sort of person who sometimes has to remind themselves that Verdi is supposed to be enjoyable. And I usually find a bit more effort is required when he’s being sung in English. Nevertheless, there aren’t too many opportunities to see Luisa Miller in London, and so I felt I should give it a go, on the chance it might charm me like Un ballo in maschera, move me like Rigoletto or seriously creep me out like most of the others.
Sadly, I think I cannot make a general judgement on Luisa Miller on the basis of this viewing. What I can say is that Barbora Horáková’s new production pleased me not. Indeed, it so grieved my companion after exposure to just the first hour that I had to send him home, for fear of violent mutiny. Fortunately I am made of stronger stuff, though I’m not sure what fortune that brings. Maybe for you, my dear reader, if this review saves you two and a half hours to do something other than sit through this grim Luisa Miller.
Horáková makes almost every low-level abuse of opera direction it is possible to make. I say low-level because the story is intact, though that’s not much to be grateful for. Horáková leaves the bones of this wretchedly silly, samey story there and instead saps away all the colour Verdi has tried so hard to add. There are four beruffed dancers who are there to, I guess, fill some space; they never interact with either the characters or the music. The chorus is only ever on stage because the score says they have to be, not because they have a role in the narrative. All efforts Verdi has made to give the villainous Count Walter some non-villainous depth are counteracted by the staging, which ticks off tropes to show us what a very bad man he is. There’s generally some black oil dabbed around a bit, because, you know, loss of purity.
All of this is mealy-mouthed in its deployment. Even the oil, a potential for visual spectacle if not a very original one, is always safely confined to barrels that are never overturned, instead only shyly dribbled. Everything looks lame and everything feels lame. The production is in every way conceivable dispiriting: predictable and unwelcome, ugly and tame, unimaginative and irrelevant.
In this context there’s not much conductor Alexander Joel can do to bring some fire, though I think he does his damnedest. There are a few moments where he and the reasonably tight-sounding ENO Orchestra come close, but only enough that I can sense how Luisa Miller could work in happier circumstances. Ensemble with the chorus is not great but then it could be worse and no doubt will improve. The full-throttle sound of chorus and orchestra is loud and strong but, again, never enough to overcome the deadening inertia of the staging.
The singers were generously received at the curtain calls, and it is certainly heartening to see a relatively diverse cast. Christine Rice as Federica and James Creswell as Walter were the standouts for me: ever-solid, dependable singers, comfortable in this repertory. Soloman Howard as Wurm has a very impressive, loud, boomy bass, though it’s enough of a consonant-free zone to make me think he’s overdoing it a little. Olafur Sigurdarson as Miller sounded a little strained. I wasn’t sure about Nadine Benjamin as the heroine’s friend to start with, but she sounded delightful in Act III. It’s good to see David Junghoon Kim in a lead role as Rodolfo; I think his sound has promise, even though here he’s a little generically ping-y (ping not a bad thing but not enough on its own) and breaks some of the lines. Elizabeth Llewellyn as Luisa has a blooming, lustrous top register which she exploits at every opportunity; it’s impressive and pleasant, though I wouldn’t have minded a bit more nuance in the rest of the sound.
And all of those estimations should be taken with a pinch of salt. Perhaps I would adore Llewellyn in other circumstances; but Horáková leaches the savour from everything.