There is a striking turn of events at the end of the first act in Francesca Zambello’s staging of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Luisa Miller, given its final performance by the San Francisco Opera yesterday afternoon in the War Memorial Auditorium. The final scene begins with a hunting party arranged to entertain Federica, Duchess of Ostheim, and her retinue. It begins with the hunters (both male and female), elegantly clad in their red coats and black silk hats, carrying off the corpses of the animals they have successfully hunted, all within view of the village home of the retired soldier Miller and his daughter Luisa. None of this has anything to do with Salvadore Cammarano’s libretto for this scene, in which Miller reveals to his daughter that the young villager Carlo, whom she loves, is actually Rodolfo, son of the ruling Count Walter and Federica’s betrothed.
Luisa’s conflict is magnified, so to speak, with the arrival of Federica’s revenue on the scene, all with their hunting rifles (but not the animal corpses). Meanwhile, in the distance, we see silhouettes of Luisa’s village neighbors, all carrying their farming tools. When they come to the foreground, there is a face-off as the aristocratic hunters point their rifles threateningly at the villagers. It is almost as intense as Francisco Goya’s 1814 painting The Third of May 1808, depicting Napoleon’s bloody occupation of Spain. (Luisa Miller was first performed in Naples in 1849.)
While Verdi’s opera is about an ill-fated romance between a commoner and the son of her village’s ruling Count, it is not about class warfare. Rather, as is suggested by the title of the play by Friedrich Schiller on which Cammarano based his libretto, it is about the intrigues, particularly among the nobility, that undermine that romance and eventually lead to the deaths of both lovers. Most likely, even Schiller did not see this as a premise for the more general theme of class warfare.
The fact is that there was no place for class warfare in the opera houses of the middle of the nineteenth century. While opera was originally a pleasure limited only to the nobility, it extended itself into bourgeois life during the first half of the nineteenth century. Much of that shift can be attributed to Louis-Désiré Véron, who ran the Paris Opera from 1831 to 1835. Véron realized that, with the passing of aristocratic power and wealth, opera could only survive with a viable revenue stream. Because he knew how to handle marketing and publicity as well as opera production, he was able to appeal to bourgeois tastes and desires well enough to inflate that stream to the magnitude of the Seine itself.
This shift of attention from performing artists to paying customers migrated easily from France to Italy, perhaps by way of the Comédie-Italienne, which was one of the leading competitors of the Paris Opera. Now, while the prosperous members of the bourgeoisie did not mind seeing nobility mocked (and thus could enjoy Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 492 The Marriage of Figaro), they were not particular cheered by the sight of farmers carrying pitchforks and rakes as a sign of revolt. In other words paying too much attention to a lower class of workers was bad for the opera business in the middle of the nineteenth century. All they really wanted was to be entertained by pretty voices (as in “bel canto”); and, in Verdi’s case, that is probably all that mattered when he was working on Luisa Miller.