When Schiller wrote his play Kabale und Liebe in 1784, the German-speaking world was still in the throes of the Sturm und Drang movement, itself a reaction to the restraint brought about the Enlightenment. When Verdi came to write his 15th opera, a commission by Teatro San Carlo in Naples, it was less the corrupt politics and class conflicts of the original play that attracted him – it would have been an impossible task getting that past the censors anyway – and much more the conflict between romantic and filial love. In any case, the extremes of emotion and calls for personal freedom in Schiller’s play sat very well with the rising tide of the Risorgimento in the yet-to-be-constituted Italian state.
I have long felt that the strictures of The Times’s critic on its London premiere in 1858 – “the sweepings of our composer’s study or the rinsings of his wine bottles” – were grossly unfair, and not only because of my first acquaintance with the score in a remarkable production at Hamburg State Opera in 1981, conducted by Giuseppe Sinopoli. This is a dark and psychologically complex opera in which the narrative is driven along by a declamatory kind of recitative and not studded with tuneful arias. This new production, in a fine translation by Martin Fitzpatrick, represents its first staging at The Coliseum. It was billed as a co-production with Wuppertal Opera, though as Barbora Horáková makes clear in a recent interview, it is not a restaging of the 2018 version because “the ideas are different…the singers are different…even the set works differently”.
Horáková is undoubtedly drawn to the benighted elements in this opera, and there is a preponderance of the two extremes of black and white in the sets, costumes and props. I am not persuaded, however, that the huge white panels which dominate and are increasingly covered with graffiti (initiated by younger versions of Luisa and Rodolfo scrawling “Amore” half-way through the overture), and later disfigured by rivulets of black ink in the final Act, are an ideal vehicle for demonstrating the dichotomy between good and evil. The fact is that all the characters are conflicted; nearly all have skeletons to hide. More particularly the claustrophobia, which is a key factor in explaining how constrained the principal players are in what they can and must do, is underplayed through the openness of the staging. Closed-off thinking and the search for an escape route from it form a powerful part of the psychological sub-structure of the words and music.
Blackness is one thing; sadism is quite another. There are several instances of gratuitous cruelty: Duchess Federica, an earlier incarnation of Mrs Robinson, is made to stab a crucified and upended straw doll with her arrow; the writhing, almost naked body of a young man encased in plastic sheeting is dragged on; before Miller is about to be strung up on the gallows his shirt is ripped open by the Count who draws inky blood from the flesh with the naked blade of his knife; Federica’s intended husband Rodolfo, the Count’s son, takes a teddy from a boy that has been pummelling it with a blunt instrument and proceeds to rip the stuffing out of it.
We are still in the midst of the carnival season, the time of the year in Catholic countries when everybody can let down their hair, and the only concessions to colour come in the pantomime appearances of the chorus, mixing balloons, an oversized birthday box packaged like Russian dolls, nosegays and golden confetti with intricate choreography and wrestling among the men. At times the intense physicality of much of the action detracts from what is happening vocally.
Casting the right singers for each of the main roles is half the battle in any opera. Elizabeth Llewellyn has a fine vibrant voice, occasionally a little tremulous in her upper register but with impressively smoky chest tones, an ideal instrument for Carmen in fact, but not really with the purity of line and air of innocence that delineates Verdi’s heroine. She has to grow up fast, maturing from the adolescent ingénue of the first Act to a more knowing individual in the next two. It was here that I felt she was at her best, memorably when the action begins to close in around her: in a series of tender exchanges with her father, and when she sings movingly of her “haven”, her “deathbed”. Her exposed aria graced by touches of coloratura when she sings “Death is a pillow scattered with flowers” was undoubtedly a highlight. The Federica of Christine Rice had more than a matronly touch to it; Nadine Benjamin gave fine support to Luisa as her friend Laura.
As Rodolfo David Junghoon Kim has a big voice, an embryonic Heldentenor indeed, almost too powerful at times, but he was able to scale it down to maintain a softer lyrical line in more intimate moments, even if I missed many of the bel canto aspects of the role elsewhere. He was especially successful in communicating his inner torment and turmoil when he juxtaposes “I thought I was in paradise” with “She has betrayed me”.
The Icelandic baritone Olafur Sigurdarson is a credible father-figure, the voice well-rounded and keenly projected but with a tendency to snatch intermittently at phrases. When he finds his daughter’s farewell letter to Rodolfo, the emotional response in “I feel the earth crumble beneath me” is palpable. James Creswell’s Count is almost too warm and honey-coloured in tone to give credence to the idea that he is at heart a sadist and not just a murderer, squirting ink all over his son at one point.
The singing that impressed me most was that of Soloman Howard as Wurm. He is an almost constant presence on stage, by turns oleaginous and Mephistophelean in demeanour, a sexual predator in the making, especially when he repeatedly gropes Luisa. Malevolence dripped from his richly resonant voice throughout: he is the arch-schemer, the architect of all the intrigues and spinner of the web that entraps the leading characters. His inky-black bass was completely at home amongst the soiled and besmirched panels of the setting.
The members of the ENO Chorus were quite splendid, producing an impressive body of sound in the more extrovert scenes, none more so than at the end of the first act, and never static or idle in placement either, but also with restraint and focused tone in those moments of quiet introspection when they act like a Greek chorus. Alexander Joel directed a well-paced and lively account of the score, taking particular care to tease out the dark undercurrents in the lower strings and giving due prominence to wind soloists such as the clarinet, most obviously associated with Rodolfo.