Getting Semi-Serious | Playbill

Classic Arts Features Getting Semi-Serious
The Dallas Opera presents Luisa Miller, the groundbreaking opera semiseria by Giuseppe Verdi.

Anyone listening to the opening scene of Luisa Miller cannot help but imagine a range of operatic models to which Verdi seems to be paying homage. All the elements are familiar: a chorus of chattering villagers praising the beauty and goodness of a favored member of the community, a young lady in love who expresses her feelings of joy through florid melodies, a handsome young man whom she admires and who loves her in return, and a worried father. We seem to be in the world of Rossini's La gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie) and Bellini's La sonnambula (The Sleepwalker), the world of opera semiseria or semi-serious opera.

Although it sits uncomfortably between the better-known genres of opera buffa (comic opera) and opera seria (serious or tragic opera), the semi-serious genre was extremely important in Italian opera of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. This "mixed" genre, as it was often called, furthermore, has close links to French "rescue" operas, which provided models for Beethoven's magisterial transformation of the style in his Fidelio. In opera semiseria the central characters, honest and good, are beset by outside forces that threaten their world and seem to be leading them to the brink of disaster. At the last minute, though, tragedy is averted and everyone‹except the chastened villain‹lives happily ever after. Semi-serious operas are often set in rustic villages or mountain towns, whose pastoral tone and simple pleasures are interrupted by the appearance of a foreign element, often from a different social class. So, in La gazza ladra we have the return of both Ninetta's father (a soldier who has deserted his regiment) and of her beloved Giannetto (son of her master); in La sonnambula it is the arrival of Count Rodolfo that changes Amina's innocent sleepwalking into a serious threat to the tranquility of all their lives. Other operas share many of these same elements: Paisiello's Nina, Rossini's Matilde di Shabran, and Donizetti's Linda di Chamounix are a few additional examples. Even the first act of Rossini's William Tell participates in this tradition.

Verdi and his librettist, Salvatore Cammarano, made the precise decision to introduce a similar element into the world of Friedrich Schiller's Kabale und Liebe, the play from which the libretto of Luisa Miller is derived. "I have shifted the action to a village," as Cammarano says in a letter to Verdi dated June 4, 1849. Thus, Luisa and her father, and the chorus that comments on their states of mind, are firmly separated from the intrigues of a court society to which they clearly do not belong and which was the central location of the original Schiller play. Similarly, whereas in Schiller's original drama Luisa's father is a music master in the society that has grown up around the corrupt governors, Verdi and Cammarano make him a peasant. To give him additional dignity, however, they provide him with a military background (Cammarano had referred to this problem in one of his earliest letters to Verdi about the subject, saying that it would be necessary "to raise the drama to a more noble level, or at least to do this for some of its characters"). And Wurm was, in Verdi's conception, to have throughout "a certain kind of comic character that will serve to set off better both the refinement of his plotting and his villainy." This is very much like the situation with the Podestà or Mayor in La gazza ladra, whose evil behavior is set in motion by Ninetta's unwillingness to yield to his sexual advances.

The opening scene of Luisa Miller, then, is intended to lull us into believing that the opera we are about to see is of a genre in which, however threatening the powers of evil seem to be, goodness and love will ultimately triumph. As Cammarano wrote to Verdi on May 23, 1849, when he sent him the poetry for this Introduction, "This piece has to provide a diversion before the others, some of which will be horrifying, others pitiful, but all of them dismal." And that is precisely what happens in Luisa Miller. Because Verdi and Cammarano have set up this contrast, we can understand better the librettist's observation that "the catastrophe seems to me more than anything else terrible and yet filled with compassion." Much of the political and social criticism inherent in Schiller's drama, after all, was considered impossible to put on the stage in the Naples of 1849. It would not do, for example, to have Walther seek political gain by arranging a marriage between his son and the mistress of his Prince. In a proper court, as all Neapolitans under the Bourbons knew, rulers would never keep a mistress.

Almost immediately after the Introduction, however, the tone of the opera changes, and it grows ever darker as the drama develops. After having sent a prose draft of the entire libretto to Verdi in early May 1859, Cammarano gradually provided the composer with verses during the next few months and Verdi began to compose almost immediately. As always, his remarks to Cammarano are fascinating, cutting to the heart of his aesthetic ideas. Thus, after the tense dialogue between Walter and Rodolfo in which the son threatens to reveal the secret of his father's ascent to power unless Walter frees Rodolfo's beloved Luisa, Cammarano provided Verdi with text for a final ensemble to conclude the first act. In refusing it, Verdi remarked, "In the finale to the first act, I do not want a concluding quick ensemble or final cabaletta. The situation doesn't require it and a quick ensemble will ruin all the effect of the dramatic situation. Fashion the beginning of the piece and the slow concerted passage as you please; but at the end you must follow Schiller exactly." This is vintage Verdi, with his extraordinary control of theatrical time and his unwillingness to allow structural convention to get in the way of the drama.

On several occasions Verdi provided explicit instructions to his librettist. In the second act he was particularly concerned about the interactions between Wurm and Luisa during the scene in which she is compelled either to write a letter pretending that she does not really love Rodolfo at all, but instead is enamored of Wurm, or to be responsible for her father's execution. "You will need to develop a fine contrast between the terror and desperation of Luisa and the hellish coldness of Wurm," the composer instructed. "Indeed, it seems to me that if you could give Wurm's character some element of the comic, it would make the situation even more terrible." In the third act Cammarano had planned two duets, about which Verdi commented, "The third act is most beautiful. Develop well the duet for the father and daughter: make a duet that will bring tears to the eyes of the audience. The following duet for Rodolfo and Luisa is also very beautiful and fearful, but I think it is essential to conclude it as a trio with the father." Verses to draw tears in the vain hope that father and daughter can find happiness away from the court society; another duet in which Rodolfo compels the woman he believes has betrayed him to drink a poisoned cup, a cup that he himself then drains; and the return of the father in the closing trio to witness the destruction of everything that gave his life meaning. All of this before the brief appearance of Wurm and Walter and the final curtain. Cammarano, in short, provided the composer with exactly what he required.

One must not imagine, however, that Verdi treated Cammarano as a conduit only for his own ideas. Cammarano himself referred to the problem of the relationship between a poet and a composer in a beautiful letter of June 11. "If I did not fear being tarnished with the brush of a utopian idealist," he wrote, "I would be tempted to say that to come closest to perfection in an opera, one single mind should be the author of both the verses and the notes; from which emerges my opinion that if there are two authors, they must at the least remain in close contact. If the poetry must not simply serve the music, neither should it be its tyrant." That describes beautifully the relationship between Verdi and Cammarano, as they turned a dark and complex play into an opera that maintained many qualities of the original, but inserted them within an operatic genre, opera semiseria, that they forever transformed.

Philip Gossett is the editor of The Works of Giuseppe Verdi, which was published by the University of Chicago Press.

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