This new English National Opera production of Luisa Miller starts as it means to go on. Under conductor Alexander Joel, the overture’s dovetailing sotto voce phrases evoke the intrigue of the opera’s source, Schiller’s ‘bourgeois tragedy’ Kabale und Liebe.
The music starts working its dramatic magic, then the spell is broken by two children – evidently the younger selves of Luisa and her lover Rodolfo – who start daubing the white walls with the word “amore” and cute love hearts.
Premiered two years before Rigoletto, and also built around a father-daughter relationship, Luisa Miller remains a relative rarity. Though jaggedly structured, it evolves to compelling effect from its breezy opening scene to a substantial, sombre denouement.
Unfortunately, Barbora Horakova is more concerned with alienation and isolation than emotional interaction. She also short-circuits key moments such as the celebrated Act III tenor aria, sung with radiance, lyricism and power by David Junghoon Kim.
The ill-timed intrusion of Rodolfo’s graffitist alter ego typifies a production overburdened with smeared walls, fright masks, a crucifixion, obsessive removal of outerwear, reptilian dancers and a chorus of clowns.
Elizabeth Llewellyn’s Luisa, richly and subtly voiced, still manages to exude passion and sincerity, while Olafur Sigurdarson, maybe more Wagnerian than Verdian, has some touching moments as her crusty father. Casually wicked as Count Walter, James Creswell sings with depth and lucidity, while his fellow bass Soloman Howard sounds splendid and looks implausibly dashing as his evil sidekick, Wurm. Christine Rice makes Federica, the ‘other woman’, vocally stylish and surprisingly believable, and Nadine Benjamin’s Laura is exquisite. They all make expressive use of Martin Fitzpatrick’s clear, no-nonsense translation.