All too often, theatrical works don’t come alive on the stage or screen, due to a lack of dramatic tension. Dramatic tension requires conflict and conflict sets up an emotional need in the viewer for resolution. Verdi was adept at choosing sources for his operas which were laden with conflict, often with an underdog to root for, or an injustice to be undone.
For Luisa Miller, Verdi used a play, Kabale und Liebe – Intrigue and Love – by Schiller. (Verdi drew on Schiller other times as well, most notably for his later opera Don Carlo.) There is no lack of conflict or injustice here to engage the emotions. Luisa and Carlo are in love; Carlo, unknown to Luisa, is actually Rodolfo, the son of Count Walther, of the local nobility. Wurm (could he be anything but evil with a name like that?) is an employee of the Count and jealous of Rodolfo, so, of course, he rats on Rodolfo to the Count who has his own plans for Rodolfo to marry his cousin, Federica, a wealthy duchess.
So, then, we have lovers up against parental disapproval, jealous lackeys, and class difference – surely enough dramatic tension to energize an evening of glorious Verdi music. The events grow ever more melodramatic – son blackmails father; lackey Wurm connives to mislead everyone; poor Luisa, under duress, disavows her love. Can it all lead anywhere but to a tragic ending?
Don’t expect here the great drama of later Verdi; the depth of character development is not yet achieved. But there is a great deal of beautiful music in Luisa Miller and if performed by skilled singing actors, it can be a highly satisfying work.
San Francisco Opera’s new production is gifted with fine music making and convincing acting by all of the principals. Donald Runnicles’ conducting was perfectly paced, the orchestra and chorus in fine form. If only director Francesca Zambello, along with set designer Michael Yeargan, had trusted to the music and the singers to carry the evening! On the contrary, they appeared to be going out of their way to undermine the drama with an assertively self-conscious production.
The cyclorama-type backdrop, consisting of scrim panels that were raised or lowered for varying effects, was a good starting place for a unit-set approach (assumed to be on a tight budget). A large boom, from which a reversible panel was suspended, jutted out onto the stage on the diagonal. The panel was moved forward and back, as well as rotated. The content on the panels started out rather literally – a villagey look for the first scene, a hunting tapestry for the castle scene; by the later acts the style changed to semi-abstract landscape, then tominimalist pattern – none of it justifying the elaborate vehicle.
A nice moment’s effect of silhouetting the nobles dressed for the hunt was drawn out far beyond the moment and just in case we missed the theme of peasants vs. nobles, the peasants, with scythes and rakes and hoes are added behind the hunters. Mark McCullogh’s lighting repeatedly threw large, unsightly shadows across the proceedings, which, visually, went from the embarrassingly silly (Federica’s entrance on an oversized equestrian statue) to the cliched (massing candelabra on the stage floor) to the incompetent (Luisa’s father, an active participant in the last act trio, is left to sing in complete darkness).
Somehow, though, the singers transcended their surroundings. Patricia Racette’s rich and full soprano was fully up to the coloratura demands of Luisa, from her first act aria (in which she talks of loving Rodolfo at first sight), to the second act when odious Wurm exacts from her the false letter (her honor sacrificed to save her imprisoned father), and the last, when she sings of the peace that death will bring. Confident, graceful, and natural in her effective interpretation of the role, it is hard to imagine a better Luisa.Marcello Giordani, who impressed in last season’s La Favorite, was even more secure this go ’round as a dashing Rodolfo. His big second act aria ("Quando le sere al placido") alternates between memories of sweet love and the pain of perceived betrayal; Giordani’s rendition was moving and beautifully sung.
The Miller of Evgenij Dmitriev, belies his youth; he captures the goodness of the father who refuses to force his daughter into marriage ("I am a father, not a tyrant."). Basso Francesco Ellero D’Artegna is equally convincing as the evil Count Walther – such a rotten father that one hoped Rudolfo would pull the trigger when he held a pistol to Walther’s head. Individually and in the various ensembles, fine vocal instruments and first class musicality came together for a night of memorable, dramatic music.
Too bad the production was such a distraction. Perhaps it was director Francesca Zambello and her design team who should have sung the second act aria: "Punish me if I have offended."