Opera buffs enjoy their jargon. We all do it, scattering words like ‘spinto’ and ‘Fach’ like an enthusiastic pizza waiter with an outsize peppermill. It’s principally a means of signalling that you’re part of the club. But occasionally it’s genuinely useful, and Glyndebourne’s new production of Verdi’s Luisa Miller had me thinking about the concept of ‘tinta musicale’, a term used to describe Verdi’s sense that each of his operas should have its own distinctive sonic colour. The late-summer warmth that suffuses Falstaff, for example, or the maritime translucence of Simon Boccanegra. Or take La traviata: the enervated violins of the prelude, the hectic brilliance once the curtain rises. Already, you’re right there at the fevered extremes of the illness that defines the plot. Once you’re attuned to the idea, Verdi’s palette gives even an identikit early-period melodrama like Luisa an atmosphere that’s entirely distinctive.
In this case, it’s a German Romantic sound-world of baleful clarinets, hunting horns and low, surging string melodies that (at least to the sensibility of an Italian opera composer in the 1840s) makes a perfect fit for the Tyrolean setting of the opera’s source, Schiller’s play Kabale und Liebe. It was also the principal source of colour in Christof Loy’s production, which moves the story into the present day and locates it inside a vast empty white box, with the cast dressed in varieties of black and white formal wear. There are exceptions. Federica — a character who remains at one remove from most of the action — wears a peach-coloured ballgown, and as the opera opens Luisa is asleep on the floor while villagers scatter cut flowers on and around her. It’s a reference, though we don’t yet know it, to her Act III description of death as ‘a bed strewn with flowers’.
By then, Luisa’s fate has almost run its course, and as the lighting throws shadows on the walls — dark, arresting figures that dwarf the stumbling humans on the stage beneath them — it’s possible to see how effectively Loy has isolated the fundamentals of the tragedy: all-too-human weaknesses that lead to stark, irrevocable consequences.