With the dust having settled from opening-night festivities, San Francisco Opera (SFO) could now get down to business with the second of six performances of Giuseppe Verdi’s Luisa Miller, given last night in the War Memorial Opera House. This is an SFO production designed by Francesca Zambello, first performed in 2000 and directed on this occasion by Laurie Feldman. Last night’s presentation offered many highly memorable moments from an impressive number of individuals, both vocalists and conductor (and Music Director) Nicola Luisotti. For many in the audience, those moments were probably sufficient to compensate for the dramatic weakness of the whole affair.
Luisa Miller is based on the play Kabale und Liebe (intrigue and love) by Friedrich Schiller, a representative example of his contribution to the Sturm und Drang (storm and stress) movement. It involves complex interactions among seven characters. The greatest virtue of the evening is that each of the vocalists for these roles gave a solid performance with as much informed guidance as could be feasible in the matter of staying in character.
Soprano Leah Crocetto sang the title role, the daughter of a retired soldier, desperately in love with “Carlo” without realizing that he is actually Rodolfo, son of the local lord, Count Walter. Over the course of this opera’s almost three hours, Crocetto had to ride a roller-coaster of emotional dispositions, from her initial amorous passions through facing her father’s suspicions, confronting the truth about Rodolfo, suffering Walter’s brutal authoritarian stance (which includes throwing her father in prison), much of which has been engineered by his vassal Wurm (who lusts after her), and even pleading her case to Rodolfo’s “official” betrothed. All this ends with Luisa and Rodolfo dying together of the same poison.
Crocetto approached all of this with solid delivery and polished sonorities. She knew how to use the breadth of dynamic range for expressive purposes; and the intensity of her piano passages were just as moving as her bursts of tragic forte, if not more so. Furthermore, she clearly had a well-prepared understanding of the complexity of her role and could thus situate every aria in just the right dramatic context.
Tenor Michael Fabiano matched her perfectly as Rodolfo. He knew how to present his character with a sincere love for Luisa. Particularly telling was his account of the scene in which Rodolfo confesses his love for Luisa to Federica, Duchess of Ostheim, whom his is supposed to be marrying. Rodolfo must also journey through a wide diversity of emotions, and he is the one who decides to poison the wine that he drinks and then offers to Luisa in the final act. Fabiano knew how to capture this role as determined but not impetuous, and much of that personality was established through the focused clarity of his vocal delivery.
One can thus appreciate Luisa’s situation when her father (sung by baritone Vitaliy Bilyy, making his SFO debut) has the same determined emotional stance. Bilyy presented him as caring more about the well-being of his daughter than about anything else. He still has the discipline acquired through his career as a soldier; but Bilyy delivered this role with a solid sense of conviction, rather than one of an authoritarian father.
Walter, on the other hand, is clearly more interested in beneficial political alliances than anything else, at least when he is first encountered. Bass Daniel Sumegi knew how to establish this stance through his “first contact” with the audience. However, Schiller was clever enough to recognize that Walter, too, must accept change as circumstances reveal themselves and Sumegi knew how to capture the shift in Walter’s personality through his well-developed vocal rhetoric.
As might be guessed from his name (which is often used poetically in German to mean “serpent”), Wurm is the one blatantly villainous character in the opera. He sees assisting in Walter’s political machinations as a means to satisfy his passion for Luisa. Bass Andrea Silvestrelli delivered his role with the darkest possible shades. However, Silvestrelli also has one of the best bass voices among current opera singers; and he knew exactly how to modulate the polished quality of his delivery in the interest of furthering the plot, rather than drawing applause from the audience.
Contralto Ekaterina Semenchuck made her SFO debut singing the role of the Duchess Federica. The audience does not see very much of her; but, under Zambello’s staging, one sees enough to know that she is not made of cardboard. Semenchuk knew how to breathe life into a character who has never had to confront a difficult situation prior to Rodolfo’s confession of his love for Luisa.
Finally, to recognize attention to all things, it is worth noting mezzo Adler Fellow Jacqueline Piccolino’s performance of Luisa’s friend Laura. (Crocetto is, herself, an Adler alumna.) Laura has even less to do than Federica, but she is the one person to whom Luisa can be open about her personal conflicts. Piccolinio knew how to deliver this role with the requisite representation of understanding, and she reinforced it with the reassuring vocal qualities one would expect of her character.
The other major individual to recognize is Luisotti. He led the overture with the necessary rhetoric of urgency that portends tragedy. Unfortunately, Verdi did not provide him with much of a thematic vocabulary; so Luisotti had to establish his own narrative arc for the overture. For the most part he succeeded as much as the music would allow him to do.
The same could be said of the opera as a whole. This is far from Verdi’s finest achievement. Furthermore, the libretto is by Salvadore Cammarano, much of whose career involved providing librettos for Gaetano Donizetti. (That includes Lucia di Lammermoor, which SFO will present next month.) In other words, Cammarano came out of the bel canto tradition, where words were less concerned with developing a narrative and more with just providing something for all those stand-there-and-sing moments conceived only for the “pretty voice” (as “bel canto” may be translated).
The result is that, while Schiller’s narrative for Luisa Miller is rich with dramatic qualities (even if they are bit dated for a contemporary audience), Verdi and Cammarano did little with those qualities. Instead, the whole affair became one stand-there-and-sing moment after another, making the sensitivity of the vocalists to character traits the fundamental virtue of the entire evening. By the time the plot line has spun into the pending deaths of the protagonists, the score feels as if Verdi had run out of ideas; and tension gives way to squirming and wondering how much more will play out before the curtain falls. Imagine what might have ensued had all of those splendid vocalists been working with more dramatically substantive material!