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CD Feature/ Peter Maag: "Verdi - Luisa Miller"

img  Tobias

It is a morbid coincidence (or for those, who don’t believe in coincidences: an astounding tangential meeting of facts) that this live rendition of one of Verdi’s long-ignored operas which captures Luciano Pavarotti in his prime, should follow only weeks after his death. Then again, it is not a Luciano Pavarotti release to begin with. “Luisa Miller” is part of ARTS records’ ongoing efforts to capture the essence and legacy of Swiss conductor Peter Maag in carefully prepared CD-editions at a reasonable price and should therefore, at least initially, be regarded from a dramaturgical and scenical point of view. On the other hand, maybe more than in any other of Verdi’s works, the individual vocal performances and the production go hand in hand here.

It is, after all, no secret that “Luisa Miller” has long lived in the shadows of his later oeuvre, all but forgotten until the early 70s. How could this happen? I must admit that I do not believe in popular musicological explanations. Whether or not “Luisa Miller” is a difficult case for categorisation, which can neither be filed under Verdi’s youthful period, nor under the trilogy of Rigoletto/Trovatore/Traviata will hardly have been a reason for not performing it. The fact that this piece has been heavily censored, with the political connotations of the original draft being relegated to second tier also doesn’t cut the cake. All of Verdi’s major operas have had to be adjusted in some way or the other and he was certainly a creative mind who considered these cut and paste jobs as a challenge rather than a burden. Instead, the practical difficulty of finding two strong bass voices for the personages of Walter and Wurm as well as a more than able alto for Federica will have made a rediscovery a hard task for anyone. And then, let’s be honest about this, the story is anything but imaginative.

A one-sentence synopsis goes something like this: Rodolfo and Lucia love each other, but find themselves the victims of personal schemes and social barriers, swallowing poison in the end and taking the main purpetreyor down with them. Sounds familiar and indeed, the blueprint of Schiller’s “Kabale und Liebe” has survived even in the skewed final version of the libretto, which somehow lacks depth and leaves many openings and not enough closings. To Maag, however, this offers a unique chance.

Where the story can not fully deliver, the personal relationships between its protagonists need to take over. He consequently stages “Luisa Miller” as a prism of small tragedies, subtle plots, bipolar jealousy, double standards and misguided ambitions, which inevitably lead to a catastrophy. The arias between Rodolfo and Luisa are feasts of love, while the scene between him and countess Federica remains painful and marked by helplessness. Luisa’s father Miller is no onedimensional bad-guy, but a believable man torn between the wish for his family to ascend the social ladder and the pure and simple love for his daughter. Verdi is not interested in demonstrative black and white-isms, but rather cares for showing the psychological motivations of the actors. Slowly, but surely, the work approaches the edge of the cliff: Ominous choir passages open the second act, dark semblances prepare for the trials and tribulations of the finale, which offers few hummable arias, but plenty aborted and choked efforts at one instead

Of course, Pavarotti does take a lot of the credits as it turns out. His tenor has that recognisable vulnerability and pervasive emotionality, and shines in youthful splendour, untarnished and bright. “Quando le sere al placido” is his most intimate moment on this album and yet his most triumphant performance, which should be part of any Pavarotti-anthology demanding completeness. The rest of the cast are equally second to none, nor are the dynamic of Maag’s conducting. No wonder, then, that a studio version with many parallels quickly followed suite. There may be houndreds of possible explanations as to why none of the two, despite the quality of the singing involved, has turned “Luisa Miller” into an audfience darling like the operas of Verdi’s late phase. I, for one, consider it a coincidence.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Arts Records

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