In an irony that surely makes the god Momus snicker, San Francisco Opera bestowed its Opera Medal for Artistic Excellence upon director/designer Francesca Zambello in the same week that her production of “Luisa Miller” limped in as the opener of the company’s 93rd season. The show is a dud, with lackluster direction by Laurie Feldman, a weirdly mechanical set by Michael Yeargan, and a cast that seems adrift in Verdi’s 1849 potboiler.
Although the opera supposedly takes place in the Tyrol in the early 1600s, longtime SF Opera associate Zambello has chosen to move the action a couple of centuries or so later (although no mention or explanation of this updating is made in the program). How this elucidates a plot based on a provincial girl who falls in love with the son of a count, much to the chagrin of their fathers, is also never clear. Worse, the set, with an ugly moving panel that slides back and forth on an imposing black crane that punctures the illusion of a storybook village set in the woods, has a number of other modern gimmicks (sliding panels and doors) that ruin whatever illusion might be conjured by the remaining visual elements (fanciful costumes by Dunya Ramicova and appropriate lighting, depending on the music’s mood, by Gary Marder).
As for the cast, few among the half-dozen principals sounded as if they fully grasped Verdi’s intentions. In the title role, Leah Crocetto is unconvincing as a village maiden, relying too often on her chest voice, which gives her a matronly air. She’s so determined to look young and vivacious that she comes off as silly, skipping across the stage to signal her fluttering heart (the movement backfires, of course). As her father, Vitaliy Bilyy seems unsure of whether he loves his daughter more than his sense of honor, and he fails to project his anger is his Act I aria, “Ah fu giusto il mio sospetto” (though he discovers a little more resolve by Act III in the exquisitely beautiful trio of farewells Verdi wrote). As the villains who drive the action, bass-baritone Daniel Sumegi (as Count Walter) and bass Andrea Silvestrelli (as Wurm, the count’s henchman) come off as half-baked bad guys, their vocal portrayals never plumbing the sinister depths Verdi gave them in the music. When Sumegi sings his Act II aria, “Il mio sangue,” he projects not so much wrath at his son as discontent at having a bad day. Likewise, Silvestrelli expresses little sense of doom in his Act II duet with the count, “L’alto retaggio non ho bramato.” In fact, the two sound like a couple of spoiled kids fuming over how unfair it is that their toys were taken away.
Although mezzo Ekaterina Semenchuk as the Duchess Federica conveys a properly regal disdain for Luisa and makes the most of her woman-scorned scenes, she is made to enter on a ridiculous bronze horse (another of director Feldman’s ill-advised flashes) and often allows the orchestra to overwhelm her. Only tenor Michael Fabiano truly captures the pathos Verdi intended, giving impassioned readings of his Act II arias about love lost (“Quando le sere al placido”) and resignation to fate (“L’ara o l’avello apprestami”). When, in Act III, he wails his sadness (“Ah piangi; il tuo dolore”) and begs for forgiveness (“Tu perdona il fallo mio”), you understand the profound tragedy transmitted by Verdi’s haunting, poignant score.
If only Zambello had focused on the emotion underlying this work, and if Feldman had made better use of the company’s excellent chorus (she files the choristers on and off, giving them little interaction with the principals, and often “poses” them in meaningless silhouettes), the opera might have been spared tepid applause and shrugs. Sensing the drift, conductor Nicola Luisotti falls back on his achilles’ heel, exaggerated volume and rushed tempi. Alas, crashing cymbals and swelling violins cannot quicken the pulse of this plodding production.