Salvatore Cammarano after Friedrich Schiller's Kabale und Liebe
Première on May 28, 2007 in the Nationaltheater
Encounters in the Mirror: a Conversation with Massimo Zanetti, Claus Guth and Christian Schmidt
When we look at “Luisa Miller” today, the most startling aspect is that an intrigue as uncomplicatedly wrought as Wurm’s could possibly work. To separate the lovers, Wurm forces Luisa to write a letter in which she denies her feelings for Rodolfo. The happy relationship we witness at the beginning of the opera falls apart in the course of a single day: Rodolfo unhesitatingly believes the lies. Luisa sees no other alternative than at least to hint that she is the victim of an intrigue.
Claus Guth I believe we make things a little too simple for ourselves if we just regard Wurm as the personification of “evil”. I’m more interested in a psychological way of looking at things. “Evil” is not outside us but rather a part of us. There is something already in place in Luisa and Rodolfo, and Wurm merely brings it to the surface. Then it becomes interesting to explore what experiences have impacted on the characters to make them behave the way they do.
So the question is: how these impacts come about.
CG What I find so astonishing about Luisa Miller is the absolutely symmetrical structure. There is a quartet, two fathers and two children. The plot has almost cinematic cuts, first we look at what one family is doing in the living room, then the other one, until at some point the two worlds coincide.
At first glance, the fathers seem to be a maximum contrast, on the one hand a totally loving father, on the other a despotic one. But what we want, and what we ultimately get are always two different things. Actually both fathers are constantly justifying their acts by claiming their love for their children. Miller wants to protect his daughter from her naïveté and the dangers of everyday life, and Walter even claims – of course, we do have to make sure we really believe him – that he only committed the murder to retain power for his son. This leads to Miller almost suffocating his daughter with love, while Walter pushes his son into the idle motion of constant protest. Both fathers postulate that they only want the best for their children, but we can’t help asking ourselves to what degree their motives might be egotistical. Miller always talks about himself – when, in the third act, he hears that Luisa is contemplating suicide, his argument is that he doesn’t want to be left alone in his old age. In Walter’s case, on the other hand, we note that he’s really only interested in the retention of power per se, he doesn’t even ask his son if that prospect even interests him. In the face of these differently overpowering fathers, Luisa and Rodolfo haven’t got a chance to develop their own life pattern.
Massimo Zanetti For Miller, as for the other fathers of daughters in Verdi works, the issue is always expressed in words like “virginity”, “pure” or “honor”. They love these women because they stand for a certain kind of image.
CG As I see it, the most important theme in this drama – and presumably one of the most complicated phenomena in human companionship – is the aspect of projection, the desire to get a person to be what someone would like him or her to be, but which under the circumstances has nothing to do with who the individual in question really is. This is true, as I said, of both fathers, but even in the case of Rodolfo and Luisa, I have an inkling that each of them has conjured up an image of the other one that the other one cannot live up to. Both try to help each other escape from their respective worlds.
The amazing thing is how early Luisa and Rodolfo start talking about death as an alternative.
CG I have the feeling that the course has already set in the first ten minutes, and the drama can mercilessly hurtle to the ultimate disaster as if on tracks. The contemplated escapes and visions impress me as being more like the final fluttering away of a wounded bird. As with the love potion in Tristan und Isolde we could certainly argue over what significance the poison in the third act has. Ultimately it has to do with the visual depiction of something that’s already there. Verdi has given each act its own title, and when I hear the music, it makes sense to me that the third act bears the title: “The Poison” – Rodolfo and Luisa are poisoned, but this has nothing to do with the moment shortly before the end in which they actually drink the poison. Right from the beginning there is a magnetic pull right into the chasm.
Christian Schmidt The comparable ending of “Romeo and Juliet” is far more complicated in the interactive effect of the respective deaths. Contrasted with this, the ending of Luisa Miller is a model of simplicity. We can only regard it as a metaphor for two destroyed lives, which are then snuffed out.
Back to Wurm...
CG One basic assumption of our interpretation is not to regard Wurm as a realistic character, but rather to claim that evil is present as an abyss in every one of us, be it as an actual possibility, be it as a presentiment, or a form of “Shining” in a Kubrickesque sense. In the opening sequence of this film, the child communicates with his mirror image. This reveals the final catastrophe to him with the famous anagram “redrum” (“murder”).
MZ One thing that is musically conspicuous is that Wurm always shows up quite suddenly. For example, he never has any entrance music. He emerges from the silence or with a fortissimo stroke. One particularly striking moment is the one at the beginning of the second act. The chorus finishes singing a phrase, and this is precipitously followed by the outcry: “Wurm!”
CG Wurm keeps appearing out of nowhere and also only in dialogue forms, which we might define as a kind of talking to himself. When we reflect on ourselves and contemplate individual aspects, this is a form of dialogue. And this is just the way the scenes are constructed, so that the “other voice” of the protagonist speaks. Wurm readjusts like a chameleon to the respective situation.
MZ Of course there are also purely pragmatic reasons for the fact that Wurm doesn’t have a musical number of his own – the conventions did not allow for a third male protagonist. But it is not just this practice, there are also psychological explanations. In the third act, Wurm is silent, because everything has already been decided.
CS The characters have no further conversations with themselves, there is no more weighing between several possibilities, no reflection, the plot careens toward its conclusion.
CG According to the stage directions, Wurm makes one more appearance towards the end, but he doesn’t sing any more. Actually, we expect another statement from a character like that, but this way is more consistent. The course has long been set, the character dissolves.
CS The dissolution of Wurm as a splitting off of the subconscious also led to our staging solution. Openings in the wall, on the one hand, make reflections possible. On the other hand, Wurm is the only one who can walk through them. For him, the surface of reality seems to be permanently perforated. Parallel to the loss of control on the part of the various characters, the reflections are made more dynamic by having the perspectives revolved, causing a kind of dizziness. In the further course of things, the reflective moment fans out until at the end it forms a kind of hall of mirrors that can no longer be disentangled, something like a kaleidoscope, the image of which is quite beautiful but is made up only of splinters.
“Luisa Miller” has had a hard time holding its own beside “Kabale und Liebe”. For example, Verdi and Cammarano were constantly accused of having eliminated the political explosiveness of “Kabale und Liebe”. From today’s point of view, we face the question of whether a discussion of class differences has any further relevance.
CG Of course it still plays a role. You just have to walk open-eyed through the world to see that all these issues like class differences or the fear of losing status are still very much with us, even if we’d rather talk about them nowadays behind closed doors. Nevertheless I would probably have a hard time placing the social explosiveness of the work in the focal point. This aspect interests me more as a part of the aforementioned situation when Walter, for instance, contends that he knows better which woman is “right” for his son.
One of the most radical departures has to do with the role of Federica. In the Schiller play, Lady Milford is the ruler’s mistress. Federica, on the other hand was – like Rodolfo – forced into marriage by her father when still a child.
MZ We know from the correspondence between Verdi and Cammarano that Verdi would have preferred to have taken over the role of Lady Milford as it was in the Schiller play, but it would have been hopeless to get that plan past the censors in Naples.
CG I find it has more psychological tension the way it is. If we listen to the duet between Federica and Rodolfo, we see that the feelings the two of them shared in their youth were quite intense, and could very likely be very rapidly revived. But because marriage to Federica is his father’s idea, Rodolfo would never be able to acknowledge his feelings for Federica.
“Luisa Miller” marks a turning point in Verdi’s creativity after the monumental operas of the risorgimento, the individual moves back into the focal point.
MZ For me it is very thrilling to go backwards, and, having dealt with the better known Verdi operas, now to approach the early works. Of course, in many passages, Verdi just adapts to the spirit of the times, but it is interesting to examine how much late Verdi is already present here, too. By this I mean, for example, the transitions between the individual numbers. The third act is a masterwork of this sort of thing! The experiments in Macbeth already herald the fact that Verdi was undergoing a change, that he was eager to tread different paths. With Luisa Miller the time of the great historical and biblical epics is over. Verdi now creates psychological relationships.
There is a famous bon mot to the effect that “Luisa Miller” is Donizetti’s best opera.
MZ I think this is fairly short-sighted. What Verdi has created here is grandiose. Just look at the role of Luisa: it is as hard as it is because it encompasses such different voice categories. Of course the beginning sounds like Bellini or Donizetti, but by the end of the first act, we can already sense that it is moving in another direction. In the third act, Luisa sounds like a Traviata, a Desdemona.
Schiller’s play of course didn’t include a chorus.
MZ The use of the chorus is a convention, it had to be. But it is magnificent that Verdi was inspired to create something new and interesting even within this convention. I am thinking here, for example, of the beginning of the first act, the special coloring of the chorus in ppp. Or in the third act, the choral writing there is masterful!
CG I find the chorus interesting in much the same way the character of Wurm is interesting: as a phenomenon.
As sorrowing witnesses, aware of a mercilessly occurring fate, these are voices that call into the plot from the end of the story. In the Greek theatre the chorus, in a mixture of dismay and perplexity. reports an event, of which it already knows the outcome. In this sense, I find it interesting to have the chorus physically present and thus impart another, more mystical level to the work, one that goes beyond the bourgeois tragedy realism.
The conversation was held by Sophie Becker.
English translation by Donald Arthur
© Bavarian State Opera