Cheat sheet: Luisa Miller
Everything you need to know about Verdi's early opera.
Giuseppi Verdi was the most famous of Italian opera composers.
He was born in Italy to a poor family, but by the time he died, he was so revered that more than 200,000 people lined the streets at his funeral to pay him tribute.
Verdi wrote big, beautiful melodies and expressive, dramatic orchestral music. As a composer, he was always seeking out strong subjects, demanding his librettists create realistic, human characterisations.
He had a special gift for taking a character marginalised by society and putting them centre stage — whether it be a courtesan in La Traviata, a hunch-backed jester in Rigoletto or an enslaved Ethiopian princess in Aida. Luisa Miller is one of his early operas and is a very domestic drama — about a young girl, her lover and her family, which stands out among the grand themes and powerful characters he often wrote about. Listening carefully, you can hear clues in Luisa Miller of how Verdi's musical and dramatic style would develop.
A portrait of Giuseppe Verdi, painted by Giovanni Boldini in 1886.
Luisa Miller is in love with a stranger, and like all fathers, Miller is worried about this suitor. His suspicions are correct — the man calls himself Carlo, but is really Rodolfo, son of the powerful Count.
The double-crossing Wurm knows his true identity, and reveals it to Miller, craftily trying to win Luisa for himself. He also tells the Count that his son Rodolfo is in love with Luisa.
The Count is furious — he has higher plans for his only son's marriage. He arrests Miller, and tries to arrest Luisa too, before Rodolfo intervenes.
Wurm tells Luisa the only way to save her father from the Count is to write a letter, claiming she never loved Rodolfo and pledging herself to Wurm. Distraught, Luisa agrees, and Wurm's poisonous plan is set in motion…
Who are the main players?
Miller: a retired soldier
Luisa: Miller's daughter
Count Walter: a powerful local aristocrat
Rodolfo: Count Walter's son, also calls himself Carlo
Federica: Walter's niece, intended to marry Rodolfo
Wurm: Walter's steward
'Quando le sere al placido'
In this moving aria, Rodolfo reads a letter from his lover, Luisa, which declares she never loved him. He sings bitterly of his memories of their time together. Placido Domingo has performed the aria in concert so frequently that it has a fame well beyond the opera itself.
Something to listen out for
- Verdi liked to write for specific performers, and since the San Carlo opera house where Luisa Miller premiered boasted a famous clarinettist, solo lines for the clarinet are heard frequently through the opera, including during the powerful overture.
- In Act II, listen out for the demanding quartet, which is sung mostly unaccompanied. The four singers are very exposed, and must place their notes without any help from the orchestra. When the orchestra comes in towards the end of the quartet, any differences in pitch would be very obvious!
A co-production with Opera de Lausanne of Switzerland, with decadent, sleek sets and detailed monochrome costumes designed by William Orlandi.
Director Giancarlo del Monaco tells the story as a flashback, and the sense of what could have been hangs over the opera as the tragedy plays out. The sense of fate is tangible, literally hanging over the characters in the form of monumental marble set pieces which loom over each scene.
The minimalist set and stylish 1930s costumes are unashamedly theatrical, and while the performers give naturalistic performances, it is clear this is a world of storytelling, for Verdi's larger-than-life tale of love and betrayal.
A production image from Opera de Lausanne's 2014 production of Luisa Miller.
Verdi had a contract from the San Carlo opera house in Naples for a new opera, but finding the conservative environment of Naples distasteful, did his best to wriggle out of it. It was only when the opera house threatened to imprison their poet — Verdi's librettist — that he at last agreed to write the opera, "only so as to save you..." he wrote, "I am making a great sacrifice".
Cammarano repaid him well, delivering an excellent libretto based on Schiller's Kabale und Liebe (Intrigue and Love) — a groundbreaking play in its day which highlighted tensions between aristocrats and the bourgeoisie, in the context of a private domestic drama. Clever Cammarano adapted the story to avoid the interest of the censors — removing much of the political 'intrigue' of the play and focusing on the passionate, jealous and at times violent 'love'. Those subjects alone gave Verdi rich fodder for dramatic arias.
As a composer, Verdi usually got his way with librettists, but Cammarano often stood his ground. "The authors must work together like brothers," he wrote to Verdi, "and if the poetry should never be the slave of the music, neither should it be its master." A brave poet indeed!
The opera premiered in Naples in December 1849, and the critics liked it. It was soon performed in Rome, Venice, Florence, Milan, Philadelphia and London. But it wasn't long before Verdi's own work eclipsed it, and today the opera remains a curiosity for opera lovers, a vehicle for extremely talented singers to show off their skills.
- As a young man, Verdi fell in love with his music student Margherita, married her and fathered two children. Both died as infants and his wife died shortly after, devastating the composer.
- Years later, he fell in love with soprano Giuseppina Strepponi, and they lived scandalously together out of wedlock until they married.
- The crowd at Verdi's funeral was so large that it remains the largest public assembly ever held in Italy.
The composer: Verdi. Italian. 19th Century. Famous for La Traviata and Rigoletto, among many others.
The music: shows us a lot of what Verdi would become. He uses instruments to colour characters and scenes beautifully, whether during the pastoral chorus that opens Act I or the bitter famous aria where Rodolfo mourns his lost love.
The big hit:
The setting: an Italian village
A quirky fact to impress your date: Verdi nearly didn't write this opera, and only agreed when the opera house of Naples threatened to imprison his friend and librettist, Cammarano.