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Caballé, Pearl; Tucker, Milnes, Tozzi, Flagello; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Schippers. No libretto. Sony Classical 88691 90994 2 (2)
The reasons for Montserrat Caballé’s quick ascension to Met stardom are amply in evidence in a live 1968 Luisa Miller.
Rudolf Bing did well by Verdi. As the Met's general manager, he championed Don Carlo and introduced Macbeth and Nabucco to the repertory. As for Luisa Miller,before he mounted it in 1968, it had previously shown up in just one season, 1929–30. But one would never tag it as unfamiliar from the evidence of this exhilarating live recording. The performers seem to have the work in their lifeblood, and the audience responds as if greeting an old favorite.
In 1968, less than three years after her breakout performance in a Carnegie Hall Lucrezia Borgia, Montserrat Caballé was a reigning star in New York. The reasons for her quick ascension are here amply in evidence. Luisa's purity is the dramatic center of the opera; Caballé's uniquely limpid sound is its aural embodiment. The hardness that would later creep into her forte high notes is not yet present; as captured here, the voice in full cry gleams. But, as always, Caballé's pièce de résistanceis her ravishing high pianissimo. The sound is soft yet tremendous, easily riding over massed ensembles such as the Act I finale . The last act is a succession of vocal astonishments: in the uncanny quietude of her singing, Luisa seems already to have left this world . Caballé was often branded an indifferent "actress," but it seems to me that singing so dramatically apt constitutes operatic acting of the highest order.
If Caballé was a newfound deity in 1968, Richard Tucker was an institution, a quarter-century and hundreds of performances into his Met career. He is not in his best voice here. "Quando le sere al placido" is particularly rough going: he blusters his way into his upper register and ends with a vulgar high A-flat . But he comes into his own in Act III. The dramatic weight of his singing suggests the inner forces that impel Rodolfo to poison himself and his lover. This is no sweetly yearning young swain but a man driven by dark passions .
Sherrill Milnes and Caballé had made their Met debuts in the same 1965 performance of Faust. By his third season, Milnes was already well on his way to becoming the company's leading Verdi baritone. He was never a singer to deliver startling insights, and there's no getting around the fact that his Miller sounds way too young to be a convincingly middle-aged "retired soldier." By the same token, there's no denying the appeal of Milnes's big, virile sound, caught here in its youthful prime .
The two bass roles are cast with a contrasting pair of Met stalwarts, Giorgio Tozzi and Ezio Flagello, both strong. The granite at the core of Tozzi's tone conjures Count Walter's implacable nature , but his is a complex portrayal, giving off glints of the misguided paternal affection that has prompted his misdeeds. Flagello's voice may at first seem too innately round and full for the villainous Wurm, but its oleaginous nature rightly suggests the insinuating courtier . The cast's one real weak spot is the sketchily sung Federica of American mezzo Louise Pearl.
The reading by Thomas Schippers is fast and brash . He takes any number of cuts; the truncation of the Act II a cappella quartet is particularly frustrating, since Caballé sounds so lovely in what's left . An air check of a Met revival from eleven years later, with Renata Scotto, Plácido Domingo and Milnes under James Levine, shows that many of the cuts were later restored. The later performance is also more polished; Levine's transformation of the band into one of the world's great orchestras was already well underway. But Schippers creates a huge amount of excitement and a palpable sense of occasion. With this production, the Met restored Luisa Miller to its audience, summoning the resources to do it in style.
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