Watered-down Schiller it may be, but Verdi's Luisa Miller can still leave a very nasty taste in the mouth. Holland Park's new staging does so for all the wrong reasons. It is badly directed, cheaply dressed and crudely sung; the term melodramma tragico can rarely have been taken to such literal extremes. Flailing arms, clenched fists, tossed heads and their vocal equivalents drew no distinction between stressed and stressful. The park peacocks were making prettier sounds. There should be room for musical subtlety in this everyday story of country folk.
It's true, of course, that Schiller's pithy social drama goes walkabout in Verdi's rudimentary adaptation. The deceit and duplicity and sheer nastiness of the characters is not drawn with any real degree of credibility. You know you are in trouble when you have a villain called Wurm. And when the father of the would-be groom exclaims, "trust me, I'm your father!" at precisely the point where his treachery knows no bounds, he'd be more credible yelling, "who's the daddy?!"
The director, Olivia Fuchs, doesn't help matters with her contemporary update. Today's rural rich - even the pro-hunt lobby - wouldn't quite go to these lengths to protect their self-interest. Fuchs (with her costume designer Donatella Barbiere) makes great play of their crimson hunting attire, in stark contrast to the Oxfam cast-offs of the local "peasants" - the hunters and the hunted. She even throws in some half-baked Peter Sellars stylisations - concerted hand gestures and freeze-frame effects - and, of course, the police arrive in full riot gear to lend optimum distraction to the musical climax of Act I, where Luisa's prayer is heard soaring over the fractured staccatissimo of the chorus.
None of that would matter half so much if anyone on stage had mastered the high style that can elevate low melodrama. In the title role, the French soprano Anne Sophie Duprels came closest to an understanding of the term "bel canto". Hers is a biggish lyric voice with the agility, weight and openness to make an impression where it counts. But she must work more towards finessing the sound, finding and holding and intensifying those inward moments that aren't all about pressure on the vocal chords.
And there was a lot of pressure on a lot of chords in this show. No one sang quietly. Everyone pushed. As Rodolfo, the tenor Alan Oke confused commitment with hypertension. He has good notes in his voice if only he could forge them into a graceful, mellifluous legato. His romance "Quando le sere al placido" was stiffly phrased and unyielding. His voice sounded in constant need of lubrication. Likewise Mark Holland's Miller, dogged by very dodgy intonation in the absence of covering vibrato. Paul Reeves's sharp-suited Wurm was a little short in the lower register where the menace resides. Richard Angas as Count Walter and Pippa Longworth were, frankly, short of just about everything.
The best "singing" of the evening came from the City of London Sinfonia's principal clarinet. Verdi's extensive obbligato writing gave him plenty to work with. Otherwise, I'm afraid, the Holland Park peacocks were triumphant.
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