Verdi’s Luisa Miller is set in the Tyrol in the early 17th century, and for some opera directors that’s a problem. After all, they’re busy people. They probably never had time to read Wolf Hall, or to speak to any of the 100 million people worldwide who watched Game of Thrones. It’s self-evident to them that modern audiences will be unable to empathise with anything involving swords, castles or feudal hierarchies. Which is why they work hard to imagine new contexts that can make these hopelessly dated dramas address contemporary life as we live it, right here, right now. Counts, village maidens and men in ruffs? Baffling. But a clown strapped to a gyrating crucifix being stabbed with arrows by a group of dancers in flesh-coloured swimming caps and black fetish wear? Now that’s relatable.
In fairness, not everything in Barbora Horakova’s new production for ENO is quite so Eurotrash. The stark white sets, the presence of children to evoke the characters’ lost innocence and the final image of a trickling, encroaching blackness as Luisa and Rodolfo face death — there were ideas here that sort of worked, if intermittently. Let’s be clear: there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with abstraction, relocation or outright surrealism in opera. What intelligent opera-lover wouldn’t rather engage with a production by, say, Katie Mitchell or Netia Jones, than yawn through some overcooked Zeffirelli revival? What matters, in the end, is whether a director opens up an opera’s dramatic possibilities, or whether they shut them down.
Throughout Horakova’s Luisa Miller, you felt the drama being stunted or obscured; being made less than it could be, and certainly a lot more simplistic than it might have been with musical performances as tremendous as these. Yes, it looks cool to have Wurm (admittedly not Verdi’s subtlest character name) tailed by writhing, gurning dancers. Wouldn’t it have been more interesting, though, to let Soloman Howard’s bitumen-like bass and towering, magnetic physicality suggest that there’s more to the character than generic evil? Some of this stuff was just embarrassing. The malevolence of Verdi’s Count Walter (James Creswell, giving an aristocratic swagger to his rolling, black-and bronze phrases) has credible human motivations. But no, Horakova has him dressed as a tycoon and rolling a barrel of oil, which he smears over a brutalised, semi-naked youth because, hey: capitalism, right?
Meanwhile the cast sang and Alexander Joel conducted like this was the Luisa Miller of their dreams. The original play was by Schiller; this is Verdi’s German Romantic opera and Joel made it feel as urgent and ominous as Freischütz, with velvet-dark basses, sulphurous trombones and plaintive, languishing clarinets. David Junghoon Kim, as Rodolfo, launched his high notes fearlessly into the depths of the Coliseum, and Elizabeth Llewellyn, as Luisa, accompanied singing of luminous, fluid richness and aching expression with a physical performance that suggested a hyperactive infant. Horakova wouldn’t leave her alone; characters delivered intimate messages while standing yards apart with their backs turned, and at any point the chorus (who also sounded magnificent) might prance on in some new combination of facepaint and bloomers. Apparently the director was booed on the first night. There were only cheers when I attended; and rightly, because performers this good deserve better.
It doesn’t need to be this hard. In Cardiff, David Pountney has taken another mid-period Verdi shocker, Les vêpres siciliennes, and given it an updated semi-abstract staging that clarifies the action where Horakova obscured it, looks striking where Luisa Miller looked cluttered, and amplifies rather than diminishes the believable human relationships and emotions that are the main claim of this, or any opera, on a modern audience. The oppressed Sicilians get black 20th-century workwear; the French oppressors have colourful, vaguely ancien régime finery. Raimund Bauer’s atmospheric, frame-like sets glide around to imply great halls, corridors for conspiracies, and private spaces that focus the drama right in on the central performances. Even the ballet makes narrative sense.
This isn’t as high-powered a cast as ENO’s but the storytelling is so taut, and Carlo Rizzi’s sleek, volatile conducting is so pacey, that the result is entirely compelling, with Giorgio Caoduro’s warm-voiced, intensely human performance presenting the tyrant Montfort as a figure of such sympathetic complexity that the obvious parallel was with Philip II in Don Carlo. In Verdian terms, that’s as good as it gets. Anush Hovhannisyan as Hélène and Jung Soo Yun as Henri crowned ardent vocal performances with a tremulous, controlled pianissimo as they looked into the other’s eyes. You didn’t have to know that this was supposed to be 13th-century Italy to feel that this mattered. The tension even survived two separate interruptions by a mobile phone, prompting Rizzi to stop conducting and plead for silence. The round of applause that followed suggested that he’d already got the audience wholly on side.