Luisa Miller hasn’t had much luck in London. Olivier Tambosi’s 2003 staging for The Royal Opera “vandalised Verdi” (The Observer), while Olivia Fuchs’ for Holland Park the following year was “badly directed, cheaply dressed and crudely sung” (The Independent). Despite decent vocal performances, any hopes of third time lucky were dashed in Barbora Horáková’s new production for English National Opera, a playschool riot of black marker pens and paint scribbled, daubed and smeared over white formica sets. I’ve never felt such a strong urge to clean.

Elizabeth Llewellyn (Luisa) and Solomon Howard (Wurm) © Tristam Kenton
Elizabeth Llewellyn (Luisa) and Solomon Howard (Wurm)
© Tristam Kenton

Verdi and his librettist Salvatore Cammarano based Luisa Miller on Schiller’s Kabale and Liebe (Intrigue and Love), a play dealing with love across the social divide, destroyed by the machinations of an outraged father. In the opera, Luisa, daughter of a retired soldier, is in love with Carlo. Except “Carlo” is a disguise; he is really Rodolfo whose father, Count Walter, intends his son to marry the rich Duchess Federica. Throw in the Count’s slimy steward, Wurm – has a villain ever been better named? – who lusts after Luisa himself and events tumble into a spiral of torture, lies and a letter written under duress. In a suicidal finale, Rodolfo, believing Luisa has been unfaithful to him, kills them both with poison.

Horáková, making her UK debut, gives the opera a contemporary setting, but this stretches credibility in a world where a prince is free to marry a “commoner”. She stymies Schiller and Verdi right at the start. During the overture, Luisa and Rodolfo are seen as child sweethearts, scrawling “Amore” and hearts on the walls. But Luisa only knows Rodolfo as “Carlo”. Are we to believe he was under an alias at the age of ten? Count Walter is a suitably nasty piece of work, a godfather figure. But who is the young man stripped to his underpants that he is torturing in Act 1, smearing him with tar? A young Rodolfo? Who does the scarecrow, strung up and peppered with arrows, represent? So many questions.

Ólafur Sigurdarson (Miller) © Tristram Kenton
Ólafur Sigurdarson (Miller)
© Tristram Kenton

The child doubles reappear at regular intervals, a reminder of Luisa and Rodolfo’s innocent love, but they’re unable to influence the outcome. The excellent ENO Chorus is often decked out in Mexican Day of the Dead style costumes and four masked dancers cavort around Andrew Lieberman’s clinical set, representing Wurm (so the programme tells us). “Wurm represents the darkness that is inside all of us,” writes Horáková, presumably why she doesn’t kill him off at the end as prescribed in the libretto. More black is smudged across the set and paint drips and drizzles down the walls. It’s like diluted Calixto Bieito but with paint replacing the blood.

The musical performances, thankfully, were much stronger, led by Alexander Joel, who conducted a tautly sprung account of Verdi’s score, played with punch by the ENO Orchestra. Elizabeth Llewellyn had a fine evening as Luisa. Her smoky lower register did not always project cleanly, but she has plenty of power up top and managed the perky birthday girl’s coloratura nicely and her lyric soprano soared beautifully in duets. David Junghoon Kim was an excellent Rodolfo, his big Italianate tone ringing around the Coliseum. He’s not a convincing actor, as yet, but his diction has really improved and he sang with great sincerity.

David Junghoon Kim (Rodolfo) © Tristram Kenton
David Junghoon Kim (Rodolfo)
© Tristram Kenton

James Creswell’s fierce bass made for a menacing Count Walter, well supported by Solomon Howard’s powerful bass-baritone as Wurm, a towering presence. Christine Rice seemed to be channelling Sonia Prina in her strutting, vampish Federica, her dark mezzo in good shape. Ólafur Sigurdarson’s Miller sounded blustery on opening night. His strong baritone should have nothing to fear in this space and he needn’t force so strongly. He and Llewellyn sang their moving Act 3 duet with tenderness though, the emotional high point of the evening, a rare moment where Verdi transcended Horáková’s staging.

***11