On Monday night, the Metropolitan Opera offered Luisa Miller, Verdi’s opera from 1849. The opera is based on a play by Schiller. It’s about—what else is new?—love and betrayal. The Met’s current production is that of Elijah Moshinsky from 2001.
The most famous excerpt from Luisa Miller is the tenor aria, “Quando le sere al placido.” Speaking of that last word: Plácido Domingo was a famous singer of this aria, and this role. The role is Rodolfo (though not as famous as another Rodolfo, the young man in La bohème). For the last many years, Domingo has operated as a baritone, and he was onstage Monday night as Miller, father of the title character.
This opera, like most, begins with an overture, and the conductor, Bertrand de Billy, conducted it very, very well. The orchestra played it the same way. The overture had crispness, bounce, and verve. What a difference this makes, setting a tone for the evening.
And this overture featured some skillful and beautiful clarinet playing by the Met’s recently appointed principal, Anton Rist.
He would continue to play outstandingly as the opera unfolded. Sometimes, Luisa Miller resembles a clarinet concerto. And Maestro de Billy continued to conduct very, very well. The score always had dynamism. He conducted Luisa Miller as if it were a masterpiece—as if he were conducting Otello or Die Walküre. In the tenor aria, he executed some beautiful phrasing. And this reminds me: when dealing with arias and such, Maestro de Billy exhibited an unusual and excellent blend of leadership and accompaniment. This is judgment.
Frankly, the most important person in Luisa Miller is the conductor. On him, the life of the performance depends. I will tell you something else that’s frank: I have never really liked Luisa Miller. Bertrand de Billy helped me to like it better.
Domingo and a couple of others aside, the Met’s stage on Monday night was Slavic. Singing the title role, Luisa, was Sonya Yoncheva, the Bulgarian soprano. Her voice was dark-hued, and she lightened it—both in weight and in color—for coloratura. She has a lot of voice, and it was unforced. She sang a creditable piano. You could fault her for this or that, but she was always operatic. Totally operatic. She is a true stage performer.
Singing the old Domingo role, Rodolfo, was Piotr Beczala, the Polish tenor. He had a good night—a wonderful night—free and accurate. His vocal freedom meant that he could sing with interpretive confidence. He was convincing from first to last.
I could not help wondering: What was Beczala thinking, with Plácido Domingo, the legendary tenor, on the stage? For that matter, what was Domingo thinking, as this whippersnapper was singing his role—his old role—beside him?
Verdi liked father roles, of course, and there are two of them in Luisa Miller: Miller and Count Walter, Rodolfo’s father (a nasty man). The latter was taken by Alexander Vinogradov, a Russian bass. He was commanding and smart. Wurm is the villain of the piece—a real worm—and he was sung, capably, by another Russian bass, Dmitry Belosselskiy.
Federica, a dislikable duchess, was a Russian mezzo, Olesya Petrova. She was ultra-Slavic, a Marfa of a Federica. (Marfa is a role in Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina.) Petrova made Federica a battle-ax, a woman to tremble before. The power she sang with made you sit up straighter.
In 2016, I reviewed a performance of L’italiana in Algeri, the Rossini opera, at the Met. I wrote, “Making an impression in the little role of Zulma, Elvira’s maid, was Rihab Chaieb, a Tunisian-Canadian mezzo. It will be good to hear more from her.” We did on Monday night when she sang the role of Laura. Her contributions in Act III were beautiful—both beautiful and touching.
Okay, I have gone on a long while now: what about Domingo? As I keep saying, I have nothing left to say. He acquitted himself with honor. He had plenty of sound. His top notes sounded like the upper-middle notes of a tenor, not the top notes of a baritone, but that’s the way it is. Domingo summoned much dramatic power. He has operatic wiles, and a lifetime of experience, to call on. At his best, he sang with nobility.
Last summer, I did a public interview with Joseph Calleja, the tenor from Malta. He was singing at the Salzburg Festival alongside Domingo. He said, “There is a freshness in his voice, in his present register. And no wobble. He sings with no wobble whatsoever, which is astounding for a person his age.” The maestro was born in 1941, making him seventy-seven.
Athletes often try to find a way to stay in the game. Baseball players, for instance, become managers. Domingo has found a way to stay in the game—still playing. He made his professional debut in 1957. In the audience, surely, were many people born in the nineteenth century. In the audience on Monday night, there were surely people born in the twenty-first century. And on he goes.
It was so good, this Luisa Miller. Really, really good. As my friend Martin Bernheimer, the critic, would say, “It was one of those nights at the opera.” Everything clicked and cooked. Or as young people might say—I’m talking about those born in the twenty-first century—“It was lit.”