Veni, Vidi, Verdi

Miller's Crossing: Hao Jiang Tian and Denyce Graves in Luisa Miller.Photo: Beatriz Schiller

Progress is possible at the Metropolitan Opera these days, even when it’s faced with what sometimes seems like the hopeless task of putting on a decent production of a Verdi opera. Not only is the new Luisa Miller the company’s most satisfying Verdi effort in years, but it also marks a vast improvement over the bloated and preciously decorated production that has flitted in and out of the repertory since 1968. And unlike last season’s disastrous Il Trovatore, there are no fanciful directorial gimmicks to go wrong.

Santo Loquasto’s period sets and costumes (nineteenth-century England) effectively embody the conflict-filled social environment that fuels the tragedy. The pleasant pastoral surroundings of Luisa and her father and the cold and threatening castle of the powerful local lord, Count Walter, whose son Luisa secretly loves, are both keenly observed and tastefully realized. Within this sensible but atmospheric setting, Elijah Moshinsky is content to direct plot and characters, which he does with skill, flexibility, and a sure understanding of who these people are.

It’s an old-fashioned approach, I suppose, and won’t please the conceptualists, but it does encourage singers to express themselves, vocally and dramatically – a refreshing notion nowadays. The current cast never seriously disappoints, but one need not go back very far into Met history to dwell wistfully on a treasured memory or two, and pardon me if I name names. Renata Scotto and Katia Ricciarelli, both in their prime, sang the title role exquisitely not so long ago, and they tore your heart out. Marina Mescheriakova, the current Luisa, never does that, but she can manage to convey a generalized sort of vulnerability, and she sings carefully. Even at that, Mescheriakova tends to croon a lot, and her soprano has only limited color and support in the middle to lower registers. The search for a really superior Verdi soprano continues.

Neil Shicoff as Luisa’s self-destructive suitor is the clear audience favorite. He is probably about as close to an authentic Verdi tenor as we have, at least for lyric roles that require only a minimum of heroic heft. Others have caressed the line of Rodolfo’s famous Act II aria with more elegance, but Shicoff’s tone has ample ring, and for once his hyper method-acting style goes straight to the center of this tortured character. The rough nap of Nikolai Putilin’s baritone is not entirely out of place as Luisa’s crusty father, Denyce Graves gives an honorable account of a thankless role (Federica), and the two basses, Hao Jiang Tian (Walter) and Phillip Ens (Wurm), make appropriately sinister sounds. Always at his best in middle-period Verdi, James Levine lovingly conducts this wonderful score, giving it exactly the right rhythmic pacing and melodic shape.

Wagner’s music has seldom sounded more dangerously subversive than it did in Carnegie Hall not long ago, during a three-concert visit by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I’m not sure that was the point conductor Daniel Barenboim hoped to make by including recent pieces by Elliott Carter and Isabel Mundry on programs overwhelmingly dominated by Wagner. The idea, we were told, was to play the new works in order to demonstrate just how dramatically the magician of Bayreuth forever changed the future and focus of serious musical composition. I expect he did, but Mundry’s Panorama Ciego, a piano concerto in four mini-movements, and Carter’s Cello Concerto hardly contain enough information to tell us how in any meaningful way, whatever their individual merits. In any case, a trio of concerts containing generous chunks from Götterdämmerung, Act I of Die Walküre, and Tristan und Isolde in its entirety is bound to make everything else on the programs seem like filler.

Actually, I expect the main purpose was to showcase Barenboim as an opera conductor, the one capacity this multi-talented musician had yet to display in any important way during his continuing high-profile exposure in Carnegie Hall. It was an instructive encounter and, as it turned out, a much-needed one, since live Wagner opera in New York has for many years been pretty much the exclusive monopoly of James Levine and his Met Orchestra. Few are likely to complain about that, but it’s only healthy to be given an alternative view occasionally, and Barenboim provided one. In fact, Barenboim could fairly be said to be playing Furtwängler to Levine’s Toscanini, espousing a type of Wagnerian performance that prizes interior reflection and careful shaping of large structures over Levine’s primary concern for instrumental excellence and moment-to-moment surface brilliance. Both conductors tend to micro-manage their orchestras to get their effects, but the end goals could not be more different.

Barenboim achieved his most impressive results in the complete Tristan, a performance that was never less than searching and committed, at times even incandescent. The spectrum of instrumental color may have been rather narrow, even gray at times, but the overall line and shape of this gigantic score could not have been more securely grasped, precisely focused, or eloquently presented. The Met’s recent Tristan cast was perhaps vocally superior to the one Barenboim mustered with one crucial exception. It’s been many years since New York has heard an Isolde to match Waltraud Meier’s magisterial Irish princess – not always a beautiful sound perhaps and often pressed to its limits, but all the role’s formidable requirements were unflinchingly met. Even more compelling was Meier’s expressive range, her verbal acuity and ability to act with her voice to explore every facet of Isolde’s conflicted personality. A thrilling performance.

As Tristan, Christian Franz never quite matched this Isolde in terms of vocal intensity, although his tenor has more than sufficient lyricism and heroic bite to make the most important musical points. If Andreas Schmidt (Kurwenal), John Tomlinson (King Mark), and Nadja Michael (Brangäne) seemed little more than solidly dependable, that is in itself no small merit in these days of hard-to-cast Wagnerian opera. In any case, they were all clearly under the spell of the work itself, and the seething inwardness of the poetic vision conjured up by Barenboim and his orchestra.

Luisa Miller
New production of the opera by Giuseppe Verdi; starring Marina Mescheriakova; conducted by James Levine at the Metropolitan Opera.
Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Conducted by Daniel Barenboim at Carnegie Hall.

Veni, Vidi, Verdi