This production opened the Verdi Festival in Parma in 2007. It was a huge success and marked a high point in the history of the Verdi Festival. Director Denis Krief, who also designed the sets, costumes and lighting, updated the action to the 1930's. There is a clear demarcation between the two social classes that clash here, the nobility and the peasantry. The aristocrats are clad in black and white and inhabit sets with the formal frost of huge aseptic geometric shapes, that represent the rigid order of their sheltered world and the emptiness of their souls. Wurm and the Count's hunters are dressed like fascist goons. Duchess Federica is dressed in blazing red and the chorus in her reception in goofy white formal suits, as if she occupies some kind of fantasy world. The villagers are in simple, warm and attractive earth and wood colors; Miller's house is outlined by bare wood walls and a simple table. The rustic setting is represented by striking projections of leafy trees blowing in the wind and changing color with the mood of the scenes. The performance flows like a movie without interruptions - the transition between scenes is managed smoothly and cleverly with the barest of means, like sliding panels. The performance starts with birthday candles and ends with funeral candles, closing a circle of pain.
The director's careful work with the singers and chorus shows: the acting style is naturalistic and interactions and relationships ring true, nothing feels contrived. The plot is clarified and scenes of confrontation leave a gut wrenching impact. The conflicts between the two fathers and their children are vividly enacted with psychological subtlety and refinement. Sometimes, when a singer withdraws into himself and outpours his heart in a standard aria-cabaletta format, the director strips the staging down to a singer trapped in a claustrophobic space and nothing else. It's a stand-and-deliver with a twist, simple and effective, and it focuses the attention on the character's struggles at that moment. Moments that would be operatic clichés in other productions resonate here with dramatic reality and bring to life Verdi's intentions in the score.
All the six singers-actors achieve a rare musical-dramatic expressivity and get to the heart of their roles. The trio of Fiorenza Cedolins, Marcelo Álvarez and Leo Nucci are such marvelous artists! What impressed me most about Cedolins were the clarity and precision of attack, perfect trills with accurate staccatos and smooth legato, combined with a very bright and shimmering timbre. This timbre harkens back to the young girl sound of the old Italian school - light, agile and plaintive, but can also acquire strength, impact and even a thrilling metallic edge. She traces a vivid arc: from the ecstatic girl in love of act I with a voice as sparkly as champagne bubbles, through the pleading victim of act II - she puts up a spirited battle with Wurm, culminating in the tragic figure of act III, expressing both heartbreaking resignation and her love for her lover and her father in the final trio "Padre, ricevi l'estremo addio".
Marcelo Álvarez - if I wrote that he gives a red blooded mesmerizing performance I wouldn't capture half of it. Sparks fly in every direction as soon as he appears on stage. He inhabits musically and dramatically all facets of the complex role with complete conviction and effortless, warm, passionate, thrilling and secure delivery. His affection to Luisa in act I is genuinely infectious and his anxiety in his duet with Federica palpable. In the act's finale he goes from lyric outpourings to a rapidly escalating confrontation with his father that is hair-raising - he achieves demented peaks here that rival anything the operatic gods of yore could produce at their most demented. In act II he is able to put the "appassionatissimo" marked in the score into his big aria "Quando le sere al placido", with subtle variations of soft singing. The pain of betrayal and disbelief in "Ah! Mi tradia!" is poignant and heartfelt. By the cabaletta "L'ara, o l'avello apprestami" you can hear and feel his despair pushing him over the edge and into the homicidal-suicidal-vindictive monster he is to become in act III (the reprise of the cabaletta is cut - the only cut used.)
The great Leo Nucci, here at the age of sixty-five is unmatched as a Verdi baritone. He offers, as always a lesson in Verdi singing, with solid support, vocal freshness, a broad range of color and tone and an impressive upper register. He is a consummate actor here and seems a perfect fit to his role as Luisa's father and a retired soldier with a very clear set of values. This production is particularly effective in putting these values in a visual and dramatic context that makes sense: "the choice of a spouse is sacred"; "I am not a tyrant, I'm a father", and the biggest of all, "l'onor", which he is ready to defend against the Count and the world. Many of Verdi's characters are big on "l'onor", but rarely is this sentiment communicated as naturally as it is here - you really feel for this guy shaking his fist at the Count. It seems that this Miller could be someone you actually have met or could be your next-door neighbor - you can relate to this character, his world and his motives.
Giorgio Surjan as Count Walter and Rafal Siwek as Wurm look and sound their parts: the one old, cold and aloof, with the corners of his mouth constantly curved down like there is a big chip on his shoulders, and the other sinister and evil. Francesca Franci is a perfect Dutchess.
The Parma chorus coached by Martin Faggiani is first rate and the director makes good use of them as part of the action (in most productions they just stand).
I cannot shower enough praise on Maestro Donato Renzetti. What is the right beat in a given moment? Whatever it is, Maestro Renzetti always seems to find it. There are loud cheers, riotous bravos and repeated cries of "Bis! Bis!" directed at the three outstanding principals from the audience in raptures. A rain of confetti from the loggione is released at Cedolins' final curtain call. She picks one up, and once she reads what it says she gives Nucci and Álvarez each one of these notes. They read:
Fiorenza - Leo - Marcelo
Tornate a trovarci presto!!!!" (Come back soon to visit us).
The singers are body miked (the mikes are very well concealed). Sound engineers deconstruct the sound to a gazillion tracks and reconstruct some artificial mix according to their skills, preferences and available time. With body mics the result is flat, you miss the feeling of a voice projecting into a space, the squillo, the ping. The body mikes also exaggerate Cedolins' tiniest deviations from pitch, which would not be noted in-house. This is another example of the maxim that the more toys sound engineers have available to play with the worse the outcome.
Video direction is way above the usual RAI standards (but not quite at the level video director Tiziano Mancini achieves in Parma videos from 2008 on). It seems that even the camera crew was swept in the enthusiasm and involvement of all involved in this production, as there are some inspired moments of camera work.
This is the end of my review. What follows as an addendum is a boring technical analysis with some annoying digressions - you are strongly encouraged to stop reading here.
Addendum: I first heard Cedolins and Álvarez in this opera when they had a double debut in Madrid in December 2005. It was the first time Cedolins sang Luisa. If they were great in Madrid in 2005 they were even better in Parma in 2007. In the first scene Luisa sings of her love for Rodolfo "Lo vidi, e'l primo palpito". Verdi expresses her naïve ecstasy with multiple staccato notes, multiple trills of varying lengths, an ascending scale in staccato and finally a descending and ascending scale in staccato that starts and ends on a high C. All these staccatos and trills are there to give the feeling of an excitement sparkling as champagne bubbles - it is the emotional starting point of her journey to hell. When you check how various sopranos dealt with this piece in live performances and some even in their studio recordings, you find out that they all cheat here, all of them, including the greatest names. There are clips on youtube, you can check (I'm sure the score is available online). I'm not The Score Police, but the problem is that when you don't sing it as written the right mood of light (the score has "leggiermente" marked twice here), insouciant, bubbly excitement does not come off. A certain famous soprano on a DVD from a leading opera house goes beyond cheating here to a wholesale massacre of the score - no trills, no staccatos, just a fixed generic smile (that highly acclaimed DVD looks like a museum piece compared to this Parma one). To understand the difficulty singing scales in staccato try to sing some famous song, like "Happy Birthday" in three stages: first with the words, then without, only the notes, and finally try to sing the melody staccato, hitting each note separately and quickly, like a click. You will notice it is difficult to hit the note in the center of its pitch when attempted staccato. If you try a whole scale staccato, every time you hit a note a little off pitch it will stand out painfully because of the context the scale creates. This is a very exposed, risky singing so it's understandable why all sopranos avoid it to varying degrees. Cedolins is the only soprano I've encountered who sings it live exactly as written, and the result shows it is worth the effort because the musical meaning of the arietta becomes clear. It's a testament not only to her skills but also to her courage and artistic integrity.
This is the motto of this addendum - when you follow the score you realize that both in Parma in 2007 as well as in Madrid in 2005 the success of the soprano and tenor hinged on following every tiny mark in the score (there are souvenirs from the Madrid prima and second performance, rumored to have been taped with Schoeps MK4 cardioids from ideal seats). At the end of act I Álvarez gives a demented performance of a quickly escalating confrontation with his father. He sings: "Ah! tutto tentai, non restami/ che un infernal consiglio/ se crudo, inesorabile/ tu rimarri col figlio./ Trema! Svelato agl'uomini/ sarà dal labbro mio/ come giungesti ad essere Conte di Walter!" (Ah! I tried everything, if you remain cruel, inexorable to your son, there remains to me only an infernal measure. Tremble! It will be revealed to mankind from my lips how you became Count of Walter!) Verdi marks from "Trema!" "sotto voce, all'orecchio di Walter, con terribile accento" (softly, to Walter's ear, with a terrible emphasis). Then, from "come giungesti" to the end (four bars) he marks a long crescendo, "Conte di" marked "tutta voce" and the last word "Walter" takes a whole bar and marked with a fermata (which means the tenor can hold it as long and as loud as he can) and "tutta forza". So Verdi writes here an eight bar crescendo that starts "softly" and quickly escalates into "tutta forza". This is exactly what Álvarez does, and the effect is so breathtaking exactly because he follows the markings in the score in every bar. Nucci achieves his subtle variations and rich shading by following all the dynamic markings and the accents (marcatos) in the score.