home     authors     titles     dates     links     about

love and intrigue

7 september 2019

Love and Intrigue, Kabale und Liebe (1784) in Schiller's original title, is the source of Giuseppe Verdi's opera Luisa Miller (1849). Love and Intrigue was accessible in two clicks on iBooks, though as with a lot of material free on iBooks, the accompanying bibliographical resources leave a lot to be desired. For instance, I don't even know who translated the version I read, written in some ghastly faux-archaic 19th-century English with all sorts of impossible vocabulary items. But it must be authoritative. Surely iBooks would never lead me wrong! Right?

Love and Intrigue is part glurgy love story and part grim social satire. The music-master's daughter Louisa Miller is in requited love with Ferdinand, son of an aristocratic local potentate. Obviously this can't work out. Louisa's father despairs of her getting out of the entanglement with her honor intact. Ferdinand's father, the "President" of the local duchy, intends for Ferdinand to marry Lady Milford, mistress of the (unseen) duke, a match that will somehow help the President conceal that, in order to become President, he murdered the previous President.

That's OK with Lady Milford, who is infatuated with Ferdinand herself, but how to detach him from the music-master's daughter? Eventually the President's slimy secretary Worm hits on the idea of arresting Miller senior, thus forcing Louisa to write a love letter to the pusillanimous Marshal Kalb, if she ever wants to see her dad again. Worm himself wants to marry Louisa, and sees the letter scheme as his path to the altar with her.

This is all fairly idiotic, but it works dramatically because both Ferdinand and Louisa have a slight tendency to overreact. Ferdinand threatens to shoot Marshal Kalb, in a truly funny if way-over-the-top scene, but then changes course and decides to poison Louisa's lemonade instead. Overcome with spite, he takes a swig himself before offering it to her. Not till she's downed the fatal soft drink does she tell Ferdinand that the letter was extorted from her, and she still loves only him. They swiftly expire, and curtain.

Schiller's romantic characters, here, are so tetched by Sturm und Drang that it's a wonder they've survived into adulthood. (Though at that, Louisa is supposed to be only sixteen.) The interest of the play comes far more from the Kabale part, the Machiavellianism of the court characters, who do the most horrible things while being blithely candid to one another about their horrible motives.

Kabale und Liebe is apparently still regularly performed in German, and sometimes in translation as well. But the whole thing sounds from the outset like a much better proposition as opera, and Luisa Miller indeed has a venerable place in the Verdi repertoire. I recently watched a 1979 Metropolitan production on DVD, conducted by James Levine. Placido Domingo starred as Rodolfo ("Ferdinando" must not scan so well in Italian). The presence of Levine and Domingo throws a retrospective #MeToo shadow over these old productions, but they are excellent musicians, and I guess one can temporarily block out their subsequent reputations.

More jarring for the suspension of disbelief is Luisa (Renata Scotto) actually being older than her father (Sherrill Milnes), but that's par for the operatic course. More jarring still is the production's much-derided design, which looks like it was cribbed from some afterschool TV-movie of Heidi: including the decision to spray-tan Placido Domingo to match his bronze wig and the copper-colored jerkin that he appears to have bought off the clearance rack at a Christmas store.

Verdi and librettist Salvadore Cammarano made some changes to help focus the story. Miller is no longer a music-master but a retired soldier, which makes his ranting and raving and swearing vendetta slightly more effective. Luisa's mother disappears. No longer is Rodolfo's father trying to marry him off to a spare ducal mistress, but to his own niece, which is still creepy but simplifies things, and I guess makes them more morally acceptable, if you're living in the 19th century. Marshal Kalb is dispensed with, and his role in the plot conflated into that of "Wurm" himself. Verdi gets to the heart of the matter quicker, and when grand opera improves the briskness of its material, you know you've got some slack in the source story. Gone are the sinister passages of court intrigue that injected some life into Schiller's bathos. Instead, we have towering musical passages to elevate said bathos. Everybody wins!

As Luisa Miler nears its conclusion, Luisa and her still-youthful dad have decided to go off and roam the earth poor but honest ("Andrem, raminghi e poveri") when Rodolfo breaks in with his dire lemonade additive. This stuff has the notable effect of acting within 20 minutes but allowing the victim to sing in full voice for the balance of his or her life. (Rodolfo also gets to stab Wurm to death.) Absorption of the poison does not seem to depend on body weight, or else various productions would have to adjust the libretto drastically; there are sopranos who could easily take an hour or more to pack it in. In the 1979 version, Domingo must carry a good fifty pounds more than Scotto, but he collapses within a measure or two of her.

Schiller, Friedrich. Love and Intrigue. [Kabale und Liebe, 1784.] iBooks.