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Verdi in Victorian London

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Massimo Zicari

10. Luisa Miller (1858)

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  • 1 The Athenaeum, January 12, 1850, p. 51.

1On 8 June 1858, Luisa Miller had its London premiere. As previously mentioned, little or no attention had been paid to this opera over the past nine years. Luisa Miller had been premiered in Naples on 8 December 1849 and produced in Paris, at the Salle Ventadour du Théâtre-Italien, on 7 December 1852. Its first production was briefly refered to in The Athenaeum, but its success was considered dubious and its subject unsuitable for the composer.1 Nor did the debate concerning Verdi’s new style resonate in the London press during the ensuing years. Considering the complete oblivion into which Luisa Miller had fallen, at least in so far as the London scene was concerned, it may seem surprising that the manager of Her Majesty’s Theatre decided to stage it in 1858. His reasons are difficult to ascertain, for no public statement appeared in the press in this regard, and no explicit reference can be found in Lumley’s Reminiscences. Nevertheless, in emphasising the performers rather than the composers, the theatre manager’s account of the season provides us with some clues. The choice of repertoire and the success of the season continued to depend on the vocal and dramatic skills of the star singers. This was especially true at a time when Lumley was facing major financial difficulties and the competing opera house at Covent Garden was again threatening the primacy of Her Majesty’s Theatre.

  • 2 Lumley, Reminiscences, pp. 428–29.
  • 3 The Musical World, April 17, 1858, p. 250.
  • 4 Ibid.
  • 5 Lumley, Reminiscences, p. 441.
  • 6 Marietta Piccolomini had already appeared in Luisa Miller in 1853. See Teatri Arte e Letteratura, J (...)

2Already in February, Lumley had left London for Vienna, with the intention to recruit Thérèse Tietjens, whose engagement he had unsuccessfully sought the previous year.2 In Vienna Lumley had a chance to hear Tietjens sing, and the warm applause with which the Viennese public had received her encouraged the manager to hope for a similar, if not better, reception in London. Once back in London he set himself to the planning of the season, challenged by the prospective reopening of the Covent Garden Theatre. Thanks to his efforts, after a short and extraordinary Christmas season that included Il trovatore, La traviata, Lucia di Lammermoor and La fille du régiment (in Italian), on 13 April the after-Easter opera season opened at Her Majesty’s Theatre. Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots was produced on opening night, featuring Thérèse Tietjens as Valentine and Antonio Giuglini as Raoul.3 In reviewing the event, the critic of The Musical World commented on Benjamin Lumley’s “proverbial good luck in finding singers at the moment when they are most wanted”4 and, in so doing, highlighted an aspect of his managerial acumen which was imperative when dealing with productions so strongly affected by the so-called star system. In fact, the name of Thérèse Tietjens followed those of Jenny Lind, Henriette Sonntag and Marietta Piccolomini, whose roles had been of pivotal importance in determining the fortunes of that operatic establishment over the previous years. At the outset of the season Maria Spezia was also claiming her share of notoriety, and for this reason the manager granted her an opportunity by reviving Verdi’s Nino. Furthermore, Marietta Piccolomini, who was to make her reappearance in Don Pasquale as Norina, in Mozart’s Don Giovanni as Susanna and also in Michael Balfe’s La zingara (the Italian translation of The Bohemian Girl), deserved one more chance “to shine with renewed lustre.”5 Although Lumley’ Reminiscences provide no further details, it is reasonable to suppose that it was for the sake of Marietta Piccolomini’s renewed lustre that a new opera was to be produced, this being the long-forgotten Luisa Miller by Giuseppe Verdi.6

  • 7 “Royal Italian Opera, Covent Garden,” The Musical World, January 9, 1858, p. 26.

3By the time the extraordinary Christmas operatic programme was presented and the preparation of the regular after-Easter season at Her Majesty’s Theatre was in progress, striking news was circulating that the new home of the Royal Italian Opera was rapidly approaching completion. The new theatre at Covent Garden was undergoing major structural changes involving fewer tiers and fewer boxes per tier, an improvement that would afford a more comfortable accommodation to its patrons and attendees, while allowing both the pit and the stage more space. The 300 workers involved were progressing quite rapidly and there were reasons to believe that the theatre might be ready to reopen on 1 May, as planned.7

  • 8 “Her Majesty’s Theatre,” The Musical World, April 3, 1858, p. 218.
  • 9 The Musical World, April 10, 1858, p. 226.
  • 10 “Royal Italian Opera,” The Musical World, April 17, 1858, p. 251.

4At the end of March Lumley issued the official prospectus and presented a list of prime donne, which included the names of Alboni, Ortolani, Spezia, Piccolomini and, of course, Tietjens.8 On 3 April he announced that Les Huguenots would open the season, featuring Tietjens as Valentine and Giuglini as Raoul, while Piccolomini would appear in Verdi’s Luisa Miller.9 One week later, Gye issued his prospectus for the forthcoming season at Covent Garden and announced that the new theatre would open on 15 May with Les Huguenots (again), featuring almost the same cast as in 1855 (M. Zelger would now substitute for Polonini as St. Bris); Friedrich von Flotow’s Martha and Ferdinand Hérold’s Zampa were also included in the prospectus.10

  • 11 “Her Majesty’s Theatre,” The Musical World, May 8, 1858, p. 298.
  • 12 “Royal Italian Opera,” The Musical World, May 22, 1858, p. 323.
  • 13 Ibid., p. 324.

5Early in May La traviata and Il trovatore were produced at Her Majesty’s Theatre, the first featuring Marietta Piccolomini in the title role, the second featuring Thérèse Tietjens as Leonora; both artists were pronounced successful by the critic of The Musical World.11 On 15 May, while Il trovatore was repeated at Her Majesty’s Theatre, the Royal Italian Opera at Covent Garden opened with Les Huguenots, the two old favourites Giulia Grisi and Mario performing the main roles, a fact that provoked great excitement.12 In the meantime, looking beyond the two largest operatic establishments in London, the Drury Lane Theatre also opened, offering an Italian opera season that included such hits as La traviata and Rigoletto. Not every critic welcomed this new enterprise, and The Musical World pronounced it “a luxury in the strictest sense of the word.”13 As a matter of fact, the following week saw La traviata performed in three theatres at the same time, each with a different cast, each successfully welcomed by the audience, each a triumph.

  • 14 “Her Majesty’s Theatre,” The Musical World, June 5, 1858, p. 362.

6Finally, on 8 June 1858 Luisa Miller was given at Her Majesty’s Theatre, with Piccolomini as Luisa, Marietta Alboni as Duchess Frederica, Antonio Giuglini as Rodolfo, Federico Beneventano as Miller, Vialetti as Walter, Castelli as Wurm, Gramaglia as Laura; Vincenzo Bonetti was the conductor. The opera was repeated two days later for the benefit of Piccolomini, who had been the object of severe criticism, for her vocal style and musical talent did not match her acting skills. Already in May, when she made her appearance in the role of Susanna in Mozart’s Don Giovanni at Her Majesty’s theatre, her intonation had been said to be particularly weak; moreover, the manner in which she had transposed a particular passage and added sundry changes to the aria “Deh vieni non tardar” was considered questionable. As an actress, on the other hand, she was quite charming.14

  • 15 “Her Majesty’s Theatre,” The Musical World, June 12, 1858, p. 378.
  • 16 See the commentary to the critical edition of Luisa Miller’s score by Jeffrey Kallberg. Giuseppe Ve (...)
  • 17 Ibid.

7The critics of The Times, The Athenaeum and The Musical World agreed that Luisa Miller was (once more) the worst opera Verdi had ever composed. They shared a certain aversion for its dramatic plot and a strong dislike for the manner in which the composer had set it to music. The critic of The Musical World held that its music, whose libretto adhered to Schiller’s horrible drama Kabale und Liebe with tolerable closeness, was “in no respect to be counted among the very best of Signor Verdi’s.”15 The first two acts were probably the worst ever, while the third was more dramatic and effective even though it was undermined by an unaccompanied recitative. An analysis of the score was unnecessary. Words of praise were bestowed upon Alboni, whose Duchess Frederica had been quite convincing. One of the best moments in her rendition was the aria “Nozze? [...] con altra donna?” which was not in the original score. Marietta Alboni inserted it, borrowing from Verdi’s Oberto;16 its reception was enthusiastic and the singer was very warmly applauded. To this change the omission of the duet scene between Frederica and Rodolfo in Act I was to be added, which included the duet “Dall’aule raggianti” and the Cabaletta “Deh! La parola amara.” Piccolomini’s Luisa was pronounced by the same critic as “her most successful performance, both vocal and histrionic.”17 Giuglini was admirable, Beneventano’s Miller would have been better were he not so exaggerated, Vialetti and the others were good as well. The opera was a success, at least in popular terms.

8On 14 June, The Times pronounced Luisa Miller the worst of Verdi’s operas, all the more so when one considered the dramatic subject offered by Schiller’s Kabale und Liebe.

  • 18 “Music,” The Times, June 14, 1858, p. 12.

Luisa Miller is the feeblest of Signor Verdi’s operas, which is almost as much as to say the feeblest that ever came from the pen of any musician of repute. And yet Kabale und Liebe, even after passing through the crucible of one of these ingenious personages who doctor-up “libretti” for modern Italian composers, presents incidents and situations of which an earnest labourer in the field of art might have made a great deal.”18

9Instead, Verdi had failed to take advantage of the dramatic content of the libretto and the opera resulted in an endless accumulation of musical platitudes. Not only was Luisa Miller lacking in local colour, this being a weakness already well known in the composer, but it also missed those vigorous and strong emotions that were distinctive of the younger Verdi and that were nowhere to be found in this particular opera.

  • 19 Ibid.

But in Luisa Miller there is nothing of the kind—no trio like that in the last scene of Ernani, no finale like that in the second act of La traviata, no such lucky hit as the “Miserere” in Il Trovatore, no such melodious and well-planned concerted piece, as the quartet in the last scene of Rigoletto—nothing, in short, but an uninterrupted series of common- places, pale, monotonous, and dreary, which may be fairly symbolized as the sweepings of our composer’s study or the rinsings of his wine bottles.19

10The critic argued that the lack of dramatic vigour in Luisa was indicative of the lack of those qualities that had characterised the composer’s first appearance in London more than ten years before. While in Europe, the manner in which Verdi had reduced the noisiness in the orchestra and softened the dramatic colour in the voice had been understood as suggestive of a new style, the critic of The Times was now grumbling about what he considered a further weakness in the composer’s talent, especially when compared to his past achievements. Not a step forward in his compositional development, however defined, but rather a step back to an even lower level of musical artistry. Surprisingly enough, while insisting that Luisa Miller was lacking in that dramatic vigour that was so typical of Verdi’s earlier works, the critic lamented that Luisa’s role represented a case in point in the process of deterioration to which singers’ voices were subject. Verdi continued to abuse the voice and none of Piccolomini’s efforts could make the declamatory airs allotted to Luisa singable.

11The critic of The Athenaeum was the least lenient towards the dramatic subject of Luisa Miller, for he held that a more distressful drama than Schiller’s Kabale und Liebe was difficult to find. The reason why a composer like Verdi had chosen it lay exactly in its dreadfulness.

  • 20 “Music and the Drama,” The Athenaeum, June 12, 1858, p. 759.

None in the list [of Schiller’s tragedies] is a more cruel tormentor than Kabale und Liebe. Perhaps it is for this very reason that Signor Verdi— whose demon seems to demand drama ere it can be made to speak—has selected it as subject for an opera. To ourselves, its absence of local colour and in the monotony of its misery, it appears thoroughly ineligible.20

  • 21 Ibid.
  • 22 Ibid.
  • 23 Ibid.

12The critic shared with his colleagues a complaint about the lack of local colour and, in terms quite similar to those adopted by his colleague of The Times, remarked that the composer had not been able to take advantage of the original drama, which had instead been diluted into a foggy and tearful opera: “The tragedy is shocking,—the opera was lachrymose and tiresome, save when the actors amused us, without meaning to do such harm.”21 About the music, the critic’s verdict was unequivocal: “There is little, from first to last, in the music to reconcile us to the composer.”22 The overture, a long monologue on a phrase of four bars, was inexpressive, and the rest of it contained a good amount of platitude. Verdi was not even able to stand comparison with his own former works, let alone those of Rossini and Donizetti; “As regards the solo music, Luisa Miller contains nothing so good as his Settimino or “O sommo Carlo” in Ernani,—or his finale in Nabucco,—or his quartet in Rigoletto, or his “Miserere” in Il trovatore.”23 In his words, everything that was not trite in the score was unpleasant. Again, Verdi had surpassed himself in the worst possible sense:

  • 24 Ibid.

The music of I due Foscari, was meagre and dismal enough; but the music of Luisa Miller, so far as idea is concerned, seems yet more meagre and dismal.—To be just, however, after this wholesale dispraise, we should say, that a disposition may be traced on the composer’s part to enrich and to vary instrumentation, leading him in many passages to eccentricity, in some near invention, and in one or two to happy effect.24

13Given all its faults and shortcomings, the only reason why Luisa Miller scored a success in London, the critic concluded, is that it was the only novelty that season.

  • 25 Ibid.

Contemporaries state that Luisa Miller has succeeded thoroughly. Our explanation of the space devoted to it is, that probably it is the only unfamiliar opera which this season will be produced at either theatre,— further, because Signor Verdi was “the man of this morning,” if his late reverses no longer entitle him to bear the title “of the man of to-day,”— lastly, because, as we said a week ago, bad as we hold his music to be, there is attempt at style in it.25

14The critic confirmed his strong dislike for the prima donna; Piccolomini was said to be utterly incompetent and deficient in powers of musical speech, her only talent consisting in a certain dramatic sensibility. She was acceptable as an actress, but doomed to failure as an operatic singer. Alboni sustained the small part of Duchess Frederica with great care; Giuglini was good; Beneventano, as Miller, the sad, serious, soldierly father, was “emphatic in his own way, but that trenched curiously close on the border of grotesque;” Vialetti, as the old Count, was not well played; while Castelli, The Wurm, was quite miscast.

15In his Musical Recollections Chorley restated his judgment of Luisa Miller as the worst opera Verdi ever composed.

  • 26 Chorley, Musical Recollections, 2: 297–98.

It has seemed to me, as one among Signor Verdi’s operas, Luisa Miller, taken on its own terms, of fire, faggot, and rack, is the weakest of the weak. There are staccato screams in it enough to content any lover of shocking excitement; but the entire texture of the music implies (I can but fancy) either a feeble mistake, or else a want of power on the part of an artificer; who, obviously (as Signor Verdi does), demanding situations, and passion, and agony, to kindle the fire under his cauldron—has, also, only one alphabet, one grammar, one dictionary, whatsoever the scene, whatsoever the country—one cantabile, one spasmodic bravura—one feverish crescendo, as the average tools, by pressure of which the stress on the public is to be strained out.26

16The critic of The Spectator agreed to a large extent with his colleagues that the plot was unsuitable, the music unworthy and the performers admirable in their effort to make the best of a score so limited in value. The customary plot involving a young couple whose love was made impossible by a heartless father constituted the subject most typical of Verdi; the composer had set it to music by adopting the usual repertoire of hackneyed solutions.

  • 27 “Music,” The Spectator, June 12, 1858, [n.p.].

As to the music, it is neither better nor worse than that of Rigoletto or the Trovatore, operas akin to Luisa Miller in their black and horrible subjects. Verdi’s music has no character of its own. Whatever the subject or the situation, it is equally pretty, trite, and unmeaning, and depends for its effect upon the expression thrown into it by the genius of the performer.27

  • 28 The Musical World, August 14, 1858, p. 523 (from The Leader).
  • 29 Ibid.
  • 30 Ibid.

17In August The Musical World reported an excerpt from The Leader, whose opening sentence read “If anything can cure the Verdi fever now raging with unabated virulence among the operatic audiences in this metropolis, it will assuredly be the performance of Luisa Miller.28 The critic commented on Verdi’s Luisa Miller in terms at least as negative as those used by Chorley in The Athenaeum. “Full of sound and fury signifying nothing”29 was the fitting epitaph for this opera and its production. The fact that Verdi had gained fame and established himself as a composer among the London public signified nothing; the music of Luisa Miller was unmitigated trash. “From the first bar to the last, not a glimpse of freshness, not a soupçon of melody, relieves the dreary waste of dullness and unavailing noise.30

18The critic found it difficult to believe that this opera might have preceded Il trovatore, for while the second was at least full of musical and dramatic vigour, the first was dull and completely devoid of tunes. The instrumentation was noisy to the extreme, a continuous clash and clang of the brasses accompanied by an uninterrupted cracking of the strings.

  • 31 Lumley, Reminiscences, p. 446.

19Upon the conclusion of the season, on 10 August, Lumley had to abandon his position and the operatic establishment passed into the hands of his creditor, William Ward, Earl of Dudley.31

Notes

1 The Athenaeum, January 12, 1850, p. 51.

2 Lumley, Reminiscences, pp. 428–29.

3 The Musical World, April 17, 1858, p. 250.

4 Ibid.

5 Lumley, Reminiscences, p. 441.

6 Marietta Piccolomini had already appeared in Luisa Miller in 1853. See Teatri Arte e Letteratura, January 8, 1853, p. 149.

7 “Royal Italian Opera, Covent Garden,” The Musical World, January 9, 1858, p. 26.

8 “Her Majesty’s Theatre,” The Musical World, April 3, 1858, p. 218.

9 The Musical World, April 10, 1858, p. 226.

10 “Royal Italian Opera,” The Musical World, April 17, 1858, p. 251.

11 “Her Majesty’s Theatre,” The Musical World, May 8, 1858, p. 298.

12 “Royal Italian Opera,” The Musical World, May 22, 1858, p. 323.

13 Ibid., p. 324.

14 “Her Majesty’s Theatre,” The Musical World, June 5, 1858, p. 362.

15 “Her Majesty’s Theatre,” The Musical World, June 12, 1858, p. 378.

16 See the commentary to the critical edition of Luisa Miller’s score by Jeffrey Kallberg. Giuseppe Verdi, Luisa Miller (melodramma tragico in three acts) by Salvadore Cammarano, ed. Jeffrey Kallberg, ser. 1: Operas (Chicago: University of Chicago Press; Milan: G Ricordi, 1991), p. 6.

17 Ibid.

18 “Music,” The Times, June 14, 1858, p. 12.

19 Ibid.

20 “Music and the Drama,” The Athenaeum, June 12, 1858, p. 759.

21 Ibid.

22 Ibid.

23 Ibid.

24 Ibid.

25 Ibid.

26 Chorley, Musical Recollections, 2: 297–98.

27 “Music,” The Spectator, June 12, 1858, [n.p.].

28 The Musical World, August 14, 1858, p. 523 (from The Leader).

29 Ibid.

30 Ibid.

31 Lumley, Reminiscences, p. 446.