Giuseppe Verdi


A weekly Quixotic pursuit for appreciators of opera who don't expect too much, would-be appreciators of opera who don't know what to expect, and those somewhere in-between,
such as your host.

Thrown together in haste every
Saturdee morning by
Rip Rense

Giacomo Puccini

Saturdee Opry Links # 112: Lucia/Luisa Edition

Yes, another edition of Saturdee Opry Links, for your infinite boredom and raising of the question, "Why does he do this?" Today features an array of hardcore opera stuff from Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor" and Verdi's "Luisa Miller." Yes, it's a Luisa/Lucia special!  Plus overture (with nifty pantomime sequence.) Bloogarooga.

                           Alfredo Kraus and Joan Sutherland                                                                             Natalie Dessay

 Saturdee Opry Links Overture
"Don Pasquale," by Donizetti. (Fun performance, with some pantomime.)

Jose Carreras does not show up often enough in SOL, let alone live on stage. To make up for that a bit, here is a spectacular example of Carreras in his prime, with the rousing cabaletta, "L'ara o l'avella apprestami," from Verdi's "Luisa Miller." Good morning.
Setting: the gardens in the castle of Count Walter, the Tyrol, early 17th century
Synopsis: Rodolfo has received a letter from Luisa saying that she never loved him. He is crushed and when he goes to his father with the story, he says that he should get his revenge by marrying the Duchess of Ostheim. Hearing this, Rodolfo loses all hope and sings that he cannot have happiness in life or death.

Operas tend to have exotic or poetic titles, such as "The Elixir of Love" and "The Force of Destiny." Even the "name" operas conjure exotica and myth: "Tristan und Isolde," "Carmen," "Salome," "Luisa Miller." What? Huh? "Luisa Miller?" Sounds like my next-door neighbor. Hell, why not just call it "Mary Smith?" But that is the name of a good opera by Verdi, one which anticipated his great middle period ("Il Trovatore," "Rigoletto," "La Traviata.") (To be fair, there is also an opera simply named "Louise," by Charpentier.) But there is one moment in "Luisa Miller" that is decidedly exotic, without peer in all of opera: the a cappella (unaccompanied) quartet in act two: "Presentarti alla Duchessa." Correct: unaccompanied---an apparent compromise idea between Verdi and his librettist. Although NO ONE KNOWS why Verdi opted for this---really. (I have that on authority.) So this is a real freak item, this quartet for Luisa, Federica, Walter, and Wurm---in which they essentially discuss Luisa's difficult love life, and the various motivations and machinations that will eventually lead to her and her lover's demise from poison. Got it? Doesn't matter much---it's the music that counts. And why is an a cappella segment interesting, in addition to being an oddity? The four singers are very exposed, and must hit their notes without any orchestra. When the orchestra comes in towards the end of the quartet, any differences in pitch would be ugly. So there. Cast: Luisa - Ermonela Jaho; Federica - Mariana Carnovali; Wurm - Alexey Tikhomirov; Walter - Riccardo Zanellato.
(Search for "introduce yourself to the duchess")


Tenor Placido Domingo inn "Miller, " 1971.

Now here is a bang-up great aria, period full stop. Real vintage Verdi vavoom. Again, from "Luisa Miller," here is "Quando le sere al placido," sung magnificently by then-tenor Placido Domingo, on stage in 1979. "When in the evenings, in the calm. . ." (And if this item impresses you, wait until you see # 4!)
Setting: the gardens in the castle of Count Walter, the Tyrol, early 17th century
Synopsis: Rodolfo has received a (forged) letter from Luisa saying that she never loved him. He is crushed and reminisces about the happy times they had together.


Baritone Placido Domingo in "Miller," 2018

And here is Placido Domingo, baritone, an incredible 39 years later (see post # 3), also in "Luisa Miller," but playing Luisa's father, instead of her lover, Rodolfo. Be amazed. With Sonya Yoncheva, this is "Figlia compreso d'orror," ("Daughter, I am horrified.") A glorious duet that exemplifies archetypal great opera. Miller sings of his anguish at his daughter's attempted suicide over having been the victim of a plot to destroy her love affair. With English subtitles.

SOL EXTRA! INTERVIEW: Domingo and Yoncheva

The more one listens to "Luisa Miller," the more its many arias grow on you. Here is an unassuming little turn, "Tu Puniscimi," ("You punish me, O Lord") with Sonya Yoncheva---just a very typical expository Verdi item. Opera is full of such "functional," plot advancing arias that do not grab the attention in the way the "great arias" do. Yet you can hear the the anxiety in the insistent strings, even though they are essentially a waltz(!)---and in Luisa's declamations, even though they are essentially melodic. Melodiousness is not sacrificed, but rather utilized, in illustrating the drama of the moment---a characteristic of bel canto (beautiful singing) opera. A few years after this, toward the late 19th century, a new style of opera would come along, verismo, in which the writing would more directly express the feelings of the characters. (With English subtitles.)
Setting: a room in Miller's cottage, the Tyrol, early 17th century
Synopsis: Luisa's father has been taken to jail and is threatened with execution because Luisa and Rodolfo, the Count's son, are in love. Wurm, the Count's secretary, tells Luisa the only way to save her father is to write a letter saying that she loves Wurm and that she never loved Rodolfo. She writes it and then sings that, if she does wrong in writing this letter, she wishes God to punish her instead of Wurm and the Count.

Donizetti wrote something like 65 operas, which I know I've pointed out before, but it always astonishes me. Sixty-five! (And he didn't even live that long.) He was a bottomless well of melodies. A predecessor of Verdi and foremost exponent of bel canto (beautiful singing) opera, along with Rossini and Bellini, his masterpiece is probably "Lucia di Lammermoor" (1835.) More like one long string of wonderful arias than an opera, "Lucia" is famous for the namesake character going insane after being the victim of a plot to destroy her love affair. (Lot of this going around in opera.) The climactic "mad scene" is considered, rightfully, to be one of the most original and compelling moments in the repertory. Yet after Lucia loses her mind and dies, there is more. Perhaps most composers would have ended the proceedings there, but Donizetti had not yet given his tenor that one defining moment. I have no idea if this was his sole motivation in writing a final scene after Lucia's death, but given the quality of the aria, it stands to reason. Found this clip of the great Carlo Bergonzi singing "Tu che a Dio spiegasti l'ali" ("You who have spread your wings to God"), the aria from the final scene in "Lucia." Notice that he is not over-the-top, as many a tenor is in this sequence, but favors restraint and lyricism. This supports the beauty of the line, and enhances the power of the big notes.
Setting: The Ravenswood cemetary
Synopsis: After learning that Lucia has died, Edgardo is grief-stricken and sings to Lucia that he will soon be with her in heaven. Soon afterwards, he stabs himself and dies beside her body.

So here is the other splendid tenor aria from Donzetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor," and it is notable for its legato (smooth line) lyricism---enhanced by, in this case, the art and restraint of the singer, the great Alfredo Kraus (late in his career.) No hamming here, just the music, ma'am. This is "Fra Poco a me recovero," from act two, in which Edgardo learns of the (forged) letter in which Lucia denounces him and claims to have taken a new lover. This tender aria of despair begins at the 4:00 mark. ("Soon this neglected tomb will give me refuge. . .")
Translation (search for "fra poco"):

SOL EXTRA: About Alfredo Kraus, who was born in the Canary Islands to a Spanish mother and Austrian father.

Now, I usually endeavor to keep things "light and bright" (or at least brief and punchy) on SOL, but now and again I must accede to longer and heavier excerpts. Which is to introduce the "mad scene" from Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor," one of the most compelling moments in bel canto opera, and a tour-de-force sequence for any soprano. Talk to one afterward, and you are likely to find her exhausted, physically and emotionally. In other words, it ain't easy, and calls into play many vocal tools necessary for the flights of ornamented notes native to bel canto singing. Well worth watching! Here, Lucia---having been the victim of a plot to separate her from her lover, Edgardo---has just been married off to Arturo. Not given to stability from the get-go, Lucia solves the problem the most direct way possible: by murdering Arturo in their bed, immediately after their wedding. She emerges, covered with blood, to revelers still celebrating her wedding, and holds forth with varying degrees of incoherence, grief. This is the great Joan Sutherland, who essentially made her career on this role. Note the interplay between soprano and flute, starting around the ten-minute mark, to convey a cracked mind. Revolutionary in its time.
Setting: The hall of Lammermoor Castle
Synopsis: After killing Arturo, Lucia begins the "Mad Scene" by switching back and forth between joy and horror. In addition to hallucinating that Edgardo is in the room with her, she also sees the ghost that foretold the bloody end of her romance with Edgardo.
And here is a terrific performance of the same, with Natalie Dessay, whose career was cut short a couple years later by vocal cord polyps. What is very strange about this is that it does not feature the interplay between soprano and flute, and leaves the flights of "crazy notes" entirely to Dessay.

The "other great moment" from Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor" is a landmark in operatic literature: the act two sextet. Listen as the gorgeous voices weave in and out of one another, while the chorus and orchestra surge below. It's a creation such as this that, were it not for the centuries of horrors committed by humans, might almost restore one's optimism. Almost, but not quite. In any event, here it is. "Chi mi frena in tal momento," or "Who stops me at such a moment?" Grand opera, truly.
From an analysis of the scene:
The sextet opens with a duet between Edgardo and Enrico, in which Edgardo expresses pity and enduring love for Lucia, and Enrico expresses remorse for his treachery. The menís closely linked vocal lines show how, for the first time, these two enemies are united in compassion. Lucia then takes up the melody, shadowed by the chaplain Raimondo. Lucia is too unhappy even to weep; Raimondo fears an evil end to the day, and pities her. Meanwhile, Edgardo and Enrico reiterate their feelings in short asides. The sextet grows richer in texture and the range of emotions expand as we discover each characterís reaction.
Full article about the sextet:

Back to Verdi's "Luisa Miller," specifically one of those great, inimitably noble-sounding Verdi arias for baritone. This is the great Sherril Milnes. Yes, I know I say "the great" a lot, but, hell, they are. This sung by Luisa's father to Wurm, who is hatching a plot to force Luisa to marry him. (Is there a better name for an evil character than "Wurm?")
Setting: a happy village in the Tyrol, early 17th century
Synopsis: Wurm, the Count's secretary, has come to Luisa's father, a retired soldier, to ask for his daughter's hand in marriage. Miller knows that Luisa is in love with Carlo, and tells Wurm that he cannot force her to marry anyone as long as she is in love with Carlo. (Famous last words.) Wurm tells him that Carlo is actually Rodolfo, Walter's son, and leaves. Shocked, Miller comments on how his own suspicions have come true.
Approximate translation:
And he broke my heart!
a few moments remain silent, as oppressed by pain
Ah! my suspicion was right!
Wrath and pain invades my chest!
Of all good the most holy,
without stain I want honor.
Don Solanto of a daughter,
Heaven made me, and I pay,
but the daughter, but your gift
intact to the parent.

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