Luisa Miller in Zurich

Luisa Miller is an intense tragedy focusing on family intrigue and feudal oppression. It has only one hit number- the tenor aria “Quando le sere al placido“- but contains a series of vocal encounters that bring out the best of Verdi’s musico-dramatic skills. Damiano Michieletto’s production for the Zurich Opera, dating from 2010, engendered an appropriately claustrophobic atmosphere, making much use of a revolving stage to suggest that the characters cannot escape from being driven by past events. Paolo Fantin’s designs also reflect the themes of the opera. The framework decors is an aristocratic mansion but inside and overwhelmed by it, is Miller’s modest artisanal dwelling. At one point, when the dark events leading to Count Walter acquiring his title are related, the walls of this building collapse into an even smaller space.

The conductor Riccardo Frizza allowed the drama to enfold through strong, flowing orchestral lines. When necessary he could increase the tension by holding back his instrumental forces, an always telling feature of successful Verdian playing. With his thrilling top and the visceral character to the middle of his tenor voice, Matthew Polenzani was the star of the show. Without emitting a note, Wenwei Zhang’s demeanour as Wurm, body inclined obsequiously when addressing a superior, but in the face humiliatingly dismissive when dealing with his victims, was sufficient by itself to earn his fee; and he capped the portrayal with some suitably sinister singing. Although Nino Machaidze has the right voice for the title role, it has developed a marked vibrato which affected her otherwise appealingly lyrical performance. As Count Walter, Mika Kares also had some moments of vocal uncertainty.

What then to say about Leo Nucci, who has just celebrated his 76th birthday but continues to sing the pivotal role of Miller? At first resistant to him, because I was all too conscious of the frayed state of the once flamboyant baritone voice, I succumbed, particularly when those around me cheered his performance vigorously. No doubt this was partially nostalgia and partly appreciation that he was still able to offer a highly convincing account of the part. And why not? Miller is supposed to be an old man and in any event Nucci is a phenomenon.