Opera Holland Park @ Holland Park, London, 22, 24, 27, 29, 31 July, 3, 5, 7 August 2004
Written in 1848, Luisa Miller is Verdi's most underrated score, and revivals are few and far between.
Yet in the last two years, London audiences have had two opportunities to see fully-staged performances of the work.
Last year's Royal Opera revival was absolutely dreadful, with a single set for the whole opera consisting of just a steep set of white stairs against a black backdrop.
The musical performance was also disappointing, with not even the gorgeous young Italian soprano Barbara Frittoli providing her usual high standard of singing in the title role.
All the more reason, then, to applaud the attempts of the increasingly inspired Opera Holland Park in their first foray into this undiscovered gem. The company performs in the temporary summer tent in the middle of the park, and since their shakier early days in the late 1990s OHP has gone on to win useful financial support from the Cadogan family, allowing them to engage professional singers and the excellent City of London Sinfonietta for their short but innovative summer season.
Last year, they gave an enjoyable version of Stiffelio, written by Verdi two years after Luisa Miller, but this year's offering is, on the whole, even better.
The opera tells of the country girl Luisa's love for a man known as Carlo, who is in fact the son of the local lord, Walter. Luisa's father, Miller, is unhappy with the match, as is Walter's retainer, Wurm, who loves Luisa. Over the course of the opera Wurm and Walter conspire to dissolve the relationship, but the lovers are reunited in the final scene, when they are both poisoned.
There is a strong dichotomy in the opera between the religious simplicity of the peasants and the materialistic self-indulgence of the wealthier characters. The director, Olivia Fuchs, emphasises this aspect in particular, as if to turn this moral basis of the story on the audience at Holland Park who are, regrettably, mostly there to be seen rather than to enjoy a rare opportunity to see one of Verdi's early masterpieces. And sure enough, the extravagantly-bejewelled woman sitting in front of me turned to her latecomer friend and said, "You'll find the staging awful. The men were excellent though."
The tone of the production was clearly wasted on her, and she must have had her ears closed for most of the time, as at least two of the men were pretty intolerable most of the time.
Richard Angas was either unwell or well past it as Count Walter. I suppose his aged voice added a touch of verisimilitude to the proceedings, but as this was at the expense of every technical aspect of his singing - not least in the cadenza of his opening aria - it was difficult to avoid cringing during his big moments.
Mark Holland's Miller was also extremely trying at times. His is a large voice which is admirable in moments of dramatic anguish, but his main approach to singing is to boom as loudly as possible as often as possible. The problem was that he was obviously out of tune when bellowing at his loudest, and he was particularly irritating during the Act 2 quartet, when he was determined to steal the limelight.
In the lead roles, both tenor and soprano were a delightful surprise. Anne Sophie Duprels was affecting from her entrance to her death scene, a beautifully clear-toned turn as Luisa. It was very sad for Alan Oke that his voice failed him towards the end of his big aria (the only well-known piece of the score, Quando le sere al placido) because before and after this moment, he was extremely impressive. He has just the right kind of Jose Carreras-type voice for this music: silken-toned and impassioned.
Wayward passion, however, was the one serious flaw of the evening. All the main singers indulged in highly clichéd gestures, and a tendency to force their voices was a sad side-effect. Conversely, the chorus was given a strangely stilted and choreographed set of body movements to perform, a kind of semaphore which was vaguely related to the words they were singing. However, Peter Robinson led a spirited account of the score, inspiring well-controlled yet expressive playing from the City of London Sinfonietta.
The chorus was also excellent from a musical point of view, and they clearly enjoyed the apt quirkiness of the modern settings and costumes by Jamie Vartan and Donatella Barbiere respectively. The male chorus members were dressed in police uniforms in the final scene of Act 1, for example, when Walter tries to capture Miller and Luisa. This seemed an updating in entirely the veristic style that Verdi favoured at this point in his career.
For lovers of early Verdi this production is almost unmissable, despite the evening's flaws. I hope the company turns to more early Verdi next year - I will be there if they do.