The Wurm's turn

Luisa Miller Opera North Grand Theatre, Leeds
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The Independent Culture
Ever since the war, British opera companies have worked hard to do justice to Verdi's astonishing achievement. Welsh National Opera rescued Nabucco and Ernani; Covent Garden recently played a similar role with regard to Stiffelio; Opera North redirected our attention to Attila, and have now done the same for Luisa Miller, the opera of 1849 which precedes Stiffelio.

The conductor Paul Daniel has a mastery of the idiom, inflecting the occasional rum-ti-tum passages with rhythmic subtlety and injecting real passion into the score. Verdi offers the orchestra several chances to shine, particularly the clarinet, but they all play well. The chorus is in splendid form. It helps that the opera is sung in English and the balance is generally good. The cast matches stalwarts with debutants. The assurance with which they react to one another and to the conductor speaks for the degree of preparation that has gone into this production. The unaccompanied quartet in Act 2 was sensational. The young soprano Susannah Glanville takes the title role with aplomb: there is a thrilling quality to her voice and a fearless intensity to the way she tackles the role's challenges.

Luisa Miller, like Violetta in La Traviata, calls for several different styles of singing: both coloratura accuracy and great arcs of feeling. Her lover Rodolfo was in the capable hands of Arthur Davies, a tenor who has never given a careless or selfish performance. One of British opera's major assets, he was in magnificent voice and fully justified Julian Budden's claim that Luisa Miller is the tenor's opera. The director Tim Albery brought the best out of Alan Opie, very touching as Luisa's father, Miller, and of Clive Bayley as the villainous Wurm. Ethna Robinson makes much of the Duchess, but the role is frustratingly small. Given the outstanding, fresh quality of the Pizarro which Matthew Best created in Albery's production of Fidelio, it was disappointing that his Count Walter here was flatly characterised, though strongly sung.

The production began uncertainly, as the chorus shifted a miniature model of a house around for no apparent reason, but it grew in stature. At first, the designs also seemed arbitrary: a painting of a castle leaned against a staircase when the action was outside; it was shifted forwards to signify the interior of the castle. But the simplicity of Stewart Laing's design, an arena with a cyclorama and a giant staircase, eventually paid off, while the lurid lighting by Peter Mumford established a context for the melodrama. The final scene had a riveting directness achieved by the simplest means, a candle and two chairs. Rodolfo poisons himself and Luisa. Realising he has been cheated, he kills Wurm before dying at his father's feet. The chorus gasped "Ah!", and it shrank back, as Miller walked slowly past them: it was unforgettable.

Yes, the opera occasionally seems full of echoes, moments when we hear preliminary sketches for Iago, for other father-daughter scenes, and so on, but it also works on its own terms. Audiences for the Opera North tour are recommended not to miss Luisa Miller on any account. Londoners shouldn't wait for Covent Garden to tackle it in 1997: travel to see it now.

n `Luisa Miller' is in rep at the Leeds Grand Theatre to 11 Jan (0113 245 9351), then on tour to Hull, Sunderland, Nottingham and Manchester