Verdi: Luisa Miller

RAI/Peter Maag (Arts Archives 43088-2)

Release Date: 31 October 2007 4 stars

Verdi's Luisa Miller: CD review

Luisa Miller was amongst the first of Verdi's pre-Rigoletto operas to return to prominence following the revival of the composer's fortunes in the 1950s and 1960s. Its particular colour - sometimes bordering on the pastoral - and intimacy are at once distinct from the so-called 'mighty triumvirate' of 1851-3 and at the same time familiar as deriving from the composer who evoked the inner torture of Violetta, Rigoletto and Leonora.

All things considered, the piece has been well served on record. Anno Moffo's account on RCA remains a favourite of mine, capturing a fine and underrated singer at her limpid best, and with a supporting cast including Bergonzi, MacNeil, Verrett and Tozzi it's not to be dismissed lightly. The 1970s brought two famous studio accounts, one with Domingo and Ricciarelli on Deutsche Grammophon (sadly marred by Lorin Maazel's rigid conducting), the other with Pavarotti, Milnes and Caballé on Decca. Domingo returned to the part with Levine on Sony in the 1980s, though the results are inferior (as is the supporting cast), and also stars in an excellent DVD of the opera with Renata Scotto from a Met broadcast (also on DG). There are also some decent live recordings, including one with Pavarotti and Caballé and another with Carreras and Ricciarelli.

However, this newly released recording from the Italian radio archives has much to offer and in some respects supersedes all of the above. The late Luciano Pavarotti far surpasses his achievement on the Decca recording in the role of Rodolfo, largely because he's much more engaged with the opera as a drama in this earlier 1974 account. Performing live to a studio audience injects the whole recording with more atmosphere than the Decca studio could provide, and because it was a radio broadcast rather than a pirate recording from a performance in an opera house, the sound is superior (and in stereo). There's such passion, full tone and excitement from Pavarotti's singing throughout - whether in the aria 'Quando le sere al placido' or in his thrilling contributions to the nail-biting first-act finale - that this is as good a reminder as any of why the Italian tenor at his best was an almost unrivalled all-time great.

In the title role, young Mexican soprano Gilda Cruz Romo gives a very different interpretation to that of Caballé on Decca. It's at once more dramatic and more forced. On the whole, I prefer Caballé's vocal radiance, but Romo's commitment is well suited to the spirit of the live radio performance.

For me, Matteo Manuguerra's portrayal of Miller, Luisa's father, far outstrips that of Sherrill Milnes on Decca. Much as I admire him elsewhere, Milnes was not at his best at the time of making that particular recording and has some tuning problems. Manuguerra is ideally firm of tone, however, and much more menacing in the part, especially in the savage third act.

Almost his equal is Ferruccio Mazzoli as Wurm, making the most of this sinister and slimy role, and Raffaele Arié is vocally solid as Walter.

However, the crowning glory is the conducting of Peter Maag, who also conducted Pavarotti in the Decca recording but is here far more inspired. You need to attack this score with a rocket, but there also needs to be an intensity in order to convey the psychological passion of the characters and their situations. That Maag scores highly on both counts marks this out as an important performance.

It may not boast the most lavish packaging known to man, but this is an excellent and unexpectedly gripping recording that even Verdi novices will enjoy.

By Dominic McHugh