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Chris Mullins
Opera Today, August 2009

On a good night an opera performance can come across with visceral excitement without a classy production, top-name singers, or the benefit of being of one of the more familiar titles.

Such is the case with this Luisa Miller, staged at the Teatro la Fenice in 2006 and released by Naxos. The singers, in modern dress, perform on abstract sets dominated, for no clear reason, by photographic reproductions on flat columns. The title role is taken by Darina Takova, a hard-working singer but not a star. Her tenor, Giuseppe Sabbatini, has had some big nights in opera houses (and days in the recording studio) in his career, without ever quite establishing himself in the top rank. The rest of the cast even fewer may know of. The opera itself is not Verdi’s most consistently inspired score, though he was approaching his artistic maturity and the music always serves its dramatic purpose—as melodramatic as that may be in Salvatore Cammarano’s adaptation of a Friedrich von Schiller play. But it all comes together, under director Arnaud Bernard and conductor Maurizo Benini’s leadership (on stage and in the pit, respectively). It may not be pretty, but it’s an exciting, engaging Luisa Miller.

What director Bernard wanted from Alessandro Camera’s sets remains unclear—perhaps he simply asked for a prop-less space and had only the budget for the rudimentary backdrops that Camera provides. At least the Count’s home has more of a frame of reference, with the cool lighting (uncredited in the Naxos booklet) outlining a formal space, rather like an underpopulated hospital lobby. The first scene establishes Bernard’s style. As the chorus tries to awake the sleeping Luisa, she lies prone on the stage, with the chorus hovering over her. The vague ominousness of the image foreshadows the cruel and sad events to come, as Luisa is forced to lie and renounce her lover Rodolfo to save her father, because the Count wants his son to marry one Federica. To enforce his nefarious plan, the Count employs Wurm, portrayed with relish by the tall, glowering Arutjun Kotchinian (seen last season in San Diego Opera’s Rigoletto as Sparafucile). Kotchinian has the look, sure, but most importantly, he has the voice—a palpably dark and heavy bass. The La Fenice audience shows him its appreciation at final curtain.

They also warmly applaud Luisa’s father, handsomely sung by Damiano Salerno. All the darker voices impress: Ursula Ferri makes the most of her moments as Federica, and Alexander Vinogradov schemes impressively as the Count.

The leads get big hands too, of course. Rodolfo may be on the heavy side for Sabbatini, but at this point in his career he has the experience and colors to succeed. His act two aria, probably the score’s best known number, goes very well. Takova needs some time to warm up, and she has some challenging music in the first act. After that, she takes command. The drama of the last two acts suits her strong voice, and though she may not look like the youngest daughter the miller could have had, she gets to the heart of the role.

Maurizo Benini supplies tension and drive in the pit, and the Naxos sound—perhaps because the performance is spread over two discs—is remarkably clear and dynamic…check out this Naxos set.

Bob Rose
Fanfare, September 2008

Both Darina Takova and Giuseppe Sabbatini sing well and are visually attractive. Arutjun Kotchinian is a fine Wurm, and Alexander Vinogradov an acceptable Conte Walter. Maurizio Benini conducts with spirit.

The picture quality and the sound on this set are both excellent. © 2008 Fanfare Read complete review

David Denton
David's Review Corner, February 2008

Recorded at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice during May 2006, Arnaud Bernard’s production takes an updated look at Verdi’s Luisa Miller, one of the composer’s least performed operas from his mature years. Bernard’s time and place are unspecified by the mixture of dress, but would generally fall somewhere in Italy just after the First World War. It is a story of love between a couple from unequal backgrounds, both under pressure, as the story unfolds, to marry others. Forced to write a letter to her lover to save the life of her kidnapped father, Luisa, has to sacrifice true love. Rodolfo reading this renunciation of their love prepares poison before the arrival, at his request, of Luisa. He tricks Luisa to first pour him a drink, and after she has also drunk from the cup, he tells her of their imminent death, drawing from Luisa the truth that the letter was forced from her by Wurm who wants to marry her. The letter was under duress to secure her father’s release, which it thankfully achieved. Wurm now appears and Rodolfo kills him before he too dies from the poison. The Fenice cast is truly international headed by the thrilling Bulgarian soprano, Darina Takova, who has already caused something of a sensation at the performance of Meyerbeer’s L’Etoile du nord recorded ‘live’ for Marco Polo. She has the vocal impact for an ideal Luisa, her lover, Rodolfo, sung by the highly experienced Italian tenor, Guiseppe Sabbatini, whose singing at the end of act 2 is spine-tingling. His father, the Count Walter, is taken by the young Russian bass, Alexander Vinogradov, his big first act aria showing a singer of immense potential. The other bass role of Wurm is chilling in the sinister looking and imposing presence of Arutjun Kotchinian, a singer already with a big career in the major European opera houses. His second act scene with Luisa is suitably electrifying. Completing the five keys parts is the baritone Damiano Salerno in an ideally characterised Miller. A nicely focused voice that can suitably rant at the inequality that is taking over. The large chorus are as good as they come, and after settling in through the overture, the orchestra add considerably to the work’s impact under the direction of Maurizio Benini. Scenery and props are kept to an absolute minimum, but wigs and makeup were not geared to close-up filming. Highly intelligent use of cameras has perfectly captured the action, keeping well back in the big crowd scenes on this massive stage. There is Italian and English subtitles, though on the second disc this changes from white to the more difficult to read pink. It is the first of a projected opera series from Naxos, and certainly one of the best opera DVD’s I have seen over the past year.

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