Luisa Miller: Role #149 is a Keeper

Domingo and Yoncheva, photo @ Chris Lee
If there's one thing I wish I could change about myself it's this: I have no off switch when I attend a performance. I can't just sit back, relax, and enjoy. From the moment the lights dim to the last moment before the house lights go up I'm always mentally criticizing, taking notes, comparing, contrasting, weighing the positives against the negatives, until my program notes become one illegible scrawl. I'm probably an insufferable performance companion. I've know that I've missed many a great performance because I was too hung up on this or that detail.

At tonight's premiere of Verdi's Luisa Miller the same thing happened. I listened. I watched. My mind started racing. But at intermission, I found myself not fixating on all the merits and demerits of the performance. Just the opposite. I was actually just sort of chilling. It wasn't that I didn't hear the mistakes or that the performance was so superlative that I was overwhelmed. But I wasn't replaying the mistakes over and over in my head. And then it dawned on me why I wasn't doing this mental marathon: the three leads in the performance really know how to sing Verdi, and that's a skill that nowadays is so rare, and so special, that I better just count my blessings.

Beczala and Yoncheva photo @ Chris Lee
Let's start with the eponymous heroine, Luisa Miller. Sonya Yoncheva was making her role debut. In the past few years Yoncheva has really been everywhere in the repertoire, adding roles so quickly and singing in so many engagements that it's become exhausting just to cover her. In this Met season alone this is her third role that's scheduled for an HD. She's also sung Norma in London,  Elisabetta of Don Carlo and Iolanta in Paris. And there are some signs of wear and tear on her voice. In Tosca I thought she was trying to push for a bigger, brassier sound and more histrionics than her vocal DNA allowed. Her upper register can occasionally turn harsh and the vibrato loosens into a mini-wobble. In Luisa's opening cavatina "Lo vidi e 'I primo palpito" the music seemed to lie too high and move too fast for her voice and there were a few missed notes and some of the passagework was smudged.

But as the opera progressed one sensed that this sort of lyric heroine role is where Yoncheva's voice and stage persona really lives, breathes, and shines. Her dark plush middle voice and naturally sympathetic personality made this role a wonderful fit for her. Her second act scena with Wurm "Tu puniscimi, O Signore"/"A brani, a brani, o perfido" had a few hard top notes but otherwise was fine Verdian singing with lovely legato and sense of musical line. It was the final act however where Luisa has her most lyrical music where Yoncheva's voice simply glowed. It resembled her Desdemona in that float and spin. Her duet with her father, her death scene with Rodolfo, the final trio, was just gorgeous singing. There was no forcing, no push to make her voice or her acting more dramatic than it really was. It was so natural, so beautiful.

Beczala, photo @ Chris Lee
She had a worthy tenor in Piotr Beczala (Count Rodolfo). Luisa Miller is one of the few Verdi operas where the tenor's music and backstory is the richest and most compelling. Beczala had an unalloyed success. He is 51 but you'd never know it from his singing. His voice doesn't have the Mediterranean warmth of, say, Carlo Bergonzi or Luciano Pavarotti but he offered stylish, musical singing from curtain to curtain. "Quando le sere al placido" (like Donizetti's "Una furtiva lagrima") seems to lie in a beautiful place for the vast majority of tenors and of course he got a huge ovation. He also sang one verse of the cabaletta "L'ara o l'avello apprestami" which showed his impressive upper register.

I was more impressed by his work in the last act when the character takes on a much darker turn and the music turns sinister and menacing. Beczala avoided shouting or straining and did not overact. He understand that the music provided enough drama. As a result he made it to the final curtain and sounded like he could do it all over again, but made the finale intense and thrilling as Verdian finales always should be. There are tenors with more volume and glamorous timbres than Beczala. There are few tenors with his incredible consistency and who can maintain this day-to-day, performance-to-performance, season-to-season, role-to-role quality.

Here is a comparison of Beczala's "Quando le sere placido" with Domingo's own rendition almost 40 years ago:

Domingo and Yoncheva in the beautiful Act 3 duet, photo @ Chris Lee
And now for role #149 for Placido Domingo. Domingo by his own account is 77 and according to "talk of the town" is closer to 80. And so I was sort of expecting the worst. And in the first act my fears were confirmed -- Domingo's voice simply does not have enough color to do justice to Verdi's music. I don't think it's the fact that he used to be a tenor. I think it's the fact that he's almost an octogenarian. My dad who is a very feisty dude and several years younger than Domingo is starting to sound raspier and hoarser. It's called aging.

But in the third act duet with Luisa something miraculous happened. It's as if he turned back time and all of a sudden his voice was so there, so present, that you understood his greatness. In "La figlia, vedi, pentita" he ripped your heart out. I have no other words than to quote the brilliant, mercurial Albert Innaurato's review of a Domingo-as-baritone album. Innaurato, who was no fan of Domingo, wrote:
Though none of the singing here matches the better let alone the best versions put on record since the cylinder (do people know of let alone care about Amato, Ruffo, the miracle Battistini, de Luca, Giraldoni, Stracciari, Ancona?), none of it is disgraceful. More arresting is the realization that Domingo really understands how this music should go. Whether he can give voice to that insight memorably has to be put to one side, but from vivid recitative, beautifully and meaningfully pronounced, to arias that have at least the right musical shape and emotion, he really does more than his rivals today. He belonged to the last generation that really felt this music and identified with the style; and he has survived as a demonstrator of what can be done for the bland and clueless who are hired everywhere.
Domingo might not have the voice for Verdi, but he has the style. He has the dignity. As Innaurato said, he understands how this music should go. And that's something to treasure.

Alex Vinogradov, photo @ Chris Lee
The leading trio's understanding of Verdi was a marked contrast to the supporting characters. Dimitry Belosselskiy (Wurm) and Alexander Vinogradov (Count Walter) are both Russian basses whose voices have that youthful vigor and bite. They bark, they roar, but they don't sing Verdi. I could say the same about the Federica Olesya Petrova. But perhaps it will come with time. I thought Vingogradov's voice was the steadiest and most sonorous voice of the three lower-voiced characters and he did the best acting. He also seemed the most comfortable singing Verdian legato. He'll no doubt grow as an artist. All the basic material is there.

Bertrand de Billy in the pit led a decent if not thrilling performance. The Met's performance practices for Italian opera are still so old-fashioned: cabalettas are almost always shorn of a verse, singers are allowed to drop out for bars to blast a note (high or otherwise), and the chorus parts are often hacked as well. Why? Elijah Mohinsky's ultra-realistic production seemed too big for this intimate opera. Count Walter's house had a huge descending staircase that cried out for a Lucia mad scene and/or a "Hello Dolly" type production number but was just used to usher people on and offstage. But recent new productions have often called for overly busy, frantic stage business that sometimes seems to detract from the actual singing. This production as old-fashioned as it looks allowed the singers to sing their hearts out and that's what was so special about this performance.

And truth be told, Luisa Miller has its moments but is not top-drawer Verdi IMO. The ending chords are almost note-for-note identical to Il Trovatore, and there are bits and pieces of the work that remind me of Don Carlo (toxic father-son relationship), Rigoletto (father lives but daughter dies tragic senseless death), and La Traviata (woman is forced to make sacrifice that causes much suffering for all), Otello (lover becomes jealous murderer). The opera lacks the sheer impact of all those operas. But that doesn't matter. Luisa Miller when done well is a very moving drama and this Met revival of Luisa Miller is aside from Parsifal by far the best thing they've put on this season and there are six performances left. Go.

Here are the curtain calls:


  1. Domingo in Nabucco was remarkable - both the voice and the phusical agility - up and down that staircase, singing while lying prone. I know he's not immortal, but . . .

    1. Hmm I feel like Miller is a better fit for Domingo because I think at this point the sort of paternal roles come more naturally to him than the more vigorous Verdi baritone roles.

  2. I thought Domingo's Germont at the Met in 2013 was a very fine portrayal. More sympathetic than the modern interpretations but I liked it very much.

  3. I haven't seen Luisa yet, but recently listened again to the Ricciarelli-Pavarotti recording. It's magnificent. I really don't find Domingo satisfying in any Verdi baritone role, although I agree with your views on his stylistic mastery.

    1. I agree that vocally he's sort of wrong. His voice doesn't have that kind of richness. But stylistically he really knows how to sing this music.


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