It took nearly a decade for Verdi’s Luisa Miller to be staged in the UK. At its 1858 London premiere, reigning critic Henry Chorley slammed the romantic tragedy as “the weakest of the weak”, predicting that it wouldn’t be seen again. More than 150 years later, as Luisa Miller enjoys yet another main stage outing, Chorley’s tirade looks ever more like a warning to critics (beware soothsaying) and ever wider of the mark. But we shouldn’t get too smug: Luisa Miller remains in the shadow of Verdi’s most popular works and Christof Loy’s new production – remarkably – marks the first time the work has been staged at Glyndebourne.
It was worth the wait. Loy’s staging looks unmistakably post-pandemic: cavernous spaces, minimal props, stark-starker-starkest lighting by Olaf Winter (think 50 shades of white) and monochrome suiting – subtly demarcating peasants v aristos – for almost all. Performed in Tony Burke’s reduction by a slimmed down London Philharmonic Orchestra under Enrique Mazzola, the opera sounds different, too – but what’s been lost in symphonic weight is repaid in clarity that sharpens the sinuous lines of Verdi’s score and makes its sombre textures all the more striking. Mazzola maintained absolute, incisive control from the ferocity of the overture to multiple hold-your-breath pianissimos. Woodwind solos emerged razor-edged and beguiling; string pizzicatos sounded like dampened thuds, heavy with foreboding.
And there’s plenty of foreboding to go round, as we hurtle towards the final scene’s double fatality. The excellent Glyndebourne chorus was off stage throughout, beautifully blended and offering a periodic injection of a more cheerful musical mode. On stage, however, the darkness of male voices dominates: Vladislav Sulimsky was a rich, warm Miller, the Good Dad to Evgeny Stavinsky’s stentorian Bad Dad (AKA Count Walter, one of the plot’s multiple villains). Krzysztof Bączyk’s Wurm was an almost cartoonish baddie – eyes wide open, absurdly long strides around the empty stage – but Charles Castronovo’s romantically doomed Rodolfo was a more convincing dramatic presence and had gleaming tenorial heroism to burn. As his similarly doomed beloved Luisa, Mané Galoyan was a revelation, her daring in the quietest passages breathtaking, her easy coloratura providing exquisite illumination in the opera’s gloom.