It somehow feels appropriate, taking Luisa Miller on a daytrip to the countryside. Verdi’s middle period opera, based loosely on Schiller’s Kabale und Liebe (Love and Intrigue) is set in a Tyrolean village, so the rolling South Downs would seem an apt location, the work making its Glyndebourne stage debut. But don’t expect to see any of those pretty Tyrolean views or to detect the merest whiff of the outdoors other than a few bunches of flowers, for the director is none other than Christof Loy, Mr World of Interiors himself.

Mané Galoyan (Luisa)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Loy favours one-size-fits-all white box sets and that’s precisely what we get here. In many ways, he is the perfect director for Covid-era opera, his clean, stripped back productions laying bare his focus on characters’ relationships rather than visual excess. His clinical staging accommodates the social distancing in place, even if there are moments that cry out for human contact – in what crazy world can two singers not be permitted to hug each other, but it’s deemed okay for them to drink from the same glass?

Mané Galoyan (Luisa), Krzysztof Bączyk (Wurm), Nadezhda Karyazina (Federica), Charles Castronovo
© Richard Hubert Smith

Pandemic protocols meant that Loy has been directing remotely from Austria, liaising with associate director Georg Zlabinger who has rehearsed the cast in Sussex. There are familiar Loy trademarks: a predominance of black and white, a cutaway wall, sharply etched shadows. Further decluttering comes from Covid safety measures, with the chorus absent from the stage, piped in live from a rehearsal studio, a handful of silent actors as maids and villagers. Another Loy tic is stage action during the overture, but it offers helpful backstory here, establishing a predatory male environment, and showing Count Walter’s henchman Wurm – has an operatic villain ever been better named? – negotiating for Luisa’s hand in marriage with her father, retired soldier Miller.  We also see the love-at-first-sight encounter between Luisa and “Carlo”, the Count’s son Rodolfo in disguise. 

Loy adds the odd comic touch – Wurm’s bunch of pink flowers for Luisa’s birthday are outgunned by a huge bouquet of red roses from “Carlo” – but for the most part, he turns the screw of the drama deftly. Rodolfo’s identity is revealed, as is his engagement to the Duchess Federica (as decreed by his father). Blackmail ensues and by the time the truth is revealed, the two lovers have downed poisoned water (Luisa unknowingly) and Rodolfo has stabbed Wurm… although here he merely throws him a dagger and invites the villain to commit the deed himself.

Mané Galoyan (Luisa) and Vladislav Sulimsky (Miller)
© Richard Hubert Smith

It makes for compelling drama and Loy directs great performances from his team. Apart from Charles Castronovo’s excellent Rodolfo, the cast is drawn from eastern Europe, very much the epicentre of great Verdi singing these days. Country girl Luisa is sung by Armenian soprano Mané Galoyan, whose light lyric timbre and fragility of tone remind me very much of Ileana Cotrubaș. She demonstrated wonderful staccato coloratura in her opening aria, where she tells the villagers about meeting the handsome young stranger, yet drew on steely reserves by Act 3, where she determines to take her own life. The role of Miller is in that long line of Verdi baritone fathers (by the 1849 premiere, Rigoletto was just two years away). Mariinsky ensemble member Vladislav Sulimsky has previously worked with Loy and painted a sympathetic portrayal, his long phrases and seamless legato spun effortlessly. Castronovo was a terrific Rodolfo, his tenor ringing effortlessly and with great musicality in the score’s one hit aria, “Quando le sere al placido”. I’ve not heard Castronovo sound better.

Charles Castronovo (Rodolfo) and Nadezhda Karyazina (Federica)
© Richard Hubert Smith

It was a fine night for the basses. Evgeny Stavinsky sang with bel canto elegance as Count Walter, while the sepulchral toned Krzysztof Bączyk made for a particularly slippery Wurm. Nadezhda Karyazina’s dark mezzo made for a striking Federica, if making at least one non-scripted appearance too many in her bridal gown. 

Enrique Mazzola conducted Verdi’s fine score excellently, bringing out all the colour absent in Loy's staging. The London Philharmonic strings yielded much of the limelight to the woodwinds in Tony Burke’s reduction, but I guess this would be the case in many small Italian theatres with limited pit space. Mazzola paced the overture – a mini clarinet concerto – wonderfully, with a real sense of propulsion, and drew out the melodic lines in this underrated opera quite beautifully. 

For compelling drama and passionate musical performances, this Luisa Miller is remarkably powerful. 

****1