Luisa Miller was first performed at the Teatro San Carlo, Naples in 1849. It was Verdi’s 15th opera (if you count Jérusalem the rewrite of I Lombardi for Paris as a separate work). It didn’t reach the Met until 1929 when it had six performances extending into 1930. The cast was a grand one. It featured Rosa Ponselle, Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, Giuseppe De Luca, and Tancredi Pasero. Tullio Serafin conducted. Despite this all star lineup, the opera didn’t catch on. It finally reappeared in 1968 with Montserrat Caballé, Richard Tucker, Sherrill Milnes, and Giorgio Tozzi in the leading roles. Thomas Schippers conducted. This time it stuck. As of 2018 the Met has done the opera 93 times.
A couple of years later Rigoletto appeared and Verdi entered the period where, in Benjamin Britten’s words, he seemed to have discovered the secret of perfection. Luísa Miller is full of inspired writing. It has perhaps Verdi’s finest overture. The second act aria is about as good as any written for the tenor voice. The last act is masterful. It consists of a duet followed by another and ends with a gorgeous trio. Of the pre-Rigoletto operas by Verdi Luisa Miller is one of the four that are masterpieces; the others are Nabucco, Ernani, and Macbeth. But my subject here is the music that ends the first act.
In the third scene of Act 1 Rodolfo was pledged his love to Luisa. His true identity as Count Walther’s son has been revealed. The count enters set on preventing any alliance with a retired soldier’s daughter. Miller, his honor offended draws his sword. The count orders Luisa and her father arrested. Luisa falls to her knees and begs for mercy. Miller tells her to kneel only to God. This is the start of the great adagio concertato during which Rodolfo demands the father and daughter be released. When the count fails to relent his son threatens to reveal how he got his current job. Frightened, the count orders Luisa and her father set free.
This finale besides being beautiful propels the story. Budden says of it “The elements are separated as never before…In each case the effect is achieved partly by irregularity of phrase length, partly by difference of accompanimental pattern, only here the procedures are carried much further [than in Verdi’s previous operas]…The vocal ensemble [achieves] a separate world of lyrical beauty…The movement [reaches] an astonishingly bold climax.” The act ends with Rodolfo’s threat that cows his father. This delivery requires an all out spinto tenor to give the action teeth.
This excerpt is from a 1979 performance at the Met. The four principals are Renata Scotto, Plácido Domino, Sherrill Milnes, and Bonaldo Giaiotti. James Levine conducted the Met Orchestra. It starts just before the count’s entrance. Luisa Miller Act 1 finale