The San Francisco Opera opened its 2015-16 season with a rousing revival of Verdi’s “Luisa Miller”. Famously a “tenor’s opera”, it is unabashedly a vehicle for the brilliant lyric tenor voice of Michael Fabiano, a rapidly rising star on the world’s operatic stages.
Only the third tenor to appear in San Francisco as the opera’s hero Rodolfo (his predecessors were the legendary Luciano Pavarotti and the young Marcello Giordani), it was a triumphant evening for Fabiano, with a resounding and deserved ovation for Rodolfo’s great aria Quando le sere al placido.
[Below: Michael Fabiano as Rodolfo; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Fabiano, still only in his early 30s, proved convincing in portraying each of the Rodolfo’s facets – Luisa’s ardent lover, Walter’s disobedient son, Wurm’s vengeful rival, Federica’s childhood friend whom he must gently dissuade from pursuing marriage with him, and, driven to fury by treacherous misinformation, the suicidal murderer of the person he loves.
For each of these facets Verdi created multi-hued music to convey passion and pathos, for which Fabiano’s lyric voice is beautifully suited.
New Jersey-born Fabiano was joined by an international cast that included Michigan soprano Leah Crocetto in the title role of Luisa, Australian tenor Daniel Sumegi as Count Walter, Ukrainian baritone Vitaliy Bilyy as Miller, Italian basso Andrea Silvestrelli as Wurm and Russian soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk as Federica.
The performance was led by San Francisco Opera’s music director, Italian conductor Nicola Luisotti. The opera begins with one of the trio of Verdi overtures (along with those of “La Forza del Destino” and “I Vespri Siciliani”) that are favorite concert pieces. The San Francisco Opera orchestra responded to Luisotti’s characteristically energetic conducting with a brilliant performance.
The Physical Production and Staging
The opera was last presented in 2000, in the then-new Michael Yeargan production utilized for this revival. It is a classic turn-of-the-millenium example of Yeargan’s style of creating a single set in which panels can be opened and closed or repositioned so as to eliminate the need for pauses in the performance to change sets.
[Below: Michael Yeargan’s unit set for “Luisa Miller”; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Then, as now, the stage director was Francesca Zambello, who, at performance’s end, was presented the San Francisco Opera Medal for distinguished service to the company.
Her staging swiftly moved the story along, emphasizing the relationships between the characters.
Leah Crocetto’s Luisa and Vitaliy Bilyy’s Miller
As Luisa, Leah Crocetto delivered what Verdi intended, a gleaming soprano voice capable of soaring high in the ensembles, while evoking in her solo arias innocence and vulnerability.
[Below: Leah Crocetto as Luisa Miller; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Vitaliy Bilyy, in his San Francisco Opera debut, was warmly received. Bilyy displayed an elegant lyric baritone, of a bit lighter vocal weight than one expects in this role, particularly in a venue the size of the War Memorial Opera House. However, he is in the early years of a promising international career.
[Below: Luisa (Leah Crocetto, right) looks on Miller (Vitaliy Bilyy) reads a fateful letter; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Daniel Sumegi’s Walter, Andrea Silvestrelli’s Wurm and Other Cast Members
Two veterans of Francesca Zambello’s productions were cast in the bass-baritone roles.
Daniel Sumegi has sung principal roles in Zambello’s production of Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelungs” at the War Memorial Opera House. Stepping into the role of Walter at a late date, Sumegi was effective in his first important Italian role at this opera house.
[Below: Wurm (Andrea Silvestrelli, left) suggests a strategy to Count Walter; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Andrea Silvestrelli made much of the villainous character of Wurm, yet another example of Silvestrelli’s ability to use his sonorous bass voice and imposing physical presence to create a memorable character.
Ekaterina Semenchuk, whom Californians recall for her commanding Fricka in the Los Angeles Opera’s 2010 production of Wagner’s “Die Walküre”, impressed as Federica.
Illinois mezzo-soprano Jacqueline Piccolino was Laura. San Francisco Opera chorus member Christopher Jackson sang the brief role of a Peasant.
Schiller, Verdi and the Revolutionary Spirit
The story of “Luisa Miller” is adapted from Friedrich Schiller’s 1784 play Kabale und Liebe (Intrigues and Love), published a half-decade before the French Revolution sent shock-waves throughout Europe. Verdi’s opera was first performed in 1849, the year after another series of revolutions again shocked the ancient dynasties that governed Europe.
[Below: Friedrich Schiller, edited image, based on a portrait by Ludovice Simanowiz.]
Schiller, who had experienced an arbitrary imprisonment for angering a nobleman, wrote Kabale as an indictment of the old order. In his Ferdinand (Verdi’s Rodolfo) Schiller created a firebrand determined to thwart his father’s designs to interfere with his choice of bride, whatever it took.
The efforts his father and his father’s retinue took to bend the son to the father’s will – arresting the son’s would-be father-in-law and forcing the son’s bride to sign a letter repudiating her love – are countered by a murder-suicide through which the son destroys his father’s dynastic designs and with it the world his father wishes to perpetuate.
In the century and two-thirds since the opera premiered, those of us who live in Western democracies have discredited the idea of any hereditary dynasty ruling a population that can be subjected to its whims. But it was still very much a concern of Verdi’s. Verdi was attracted especially to Kabale und Liebe’s theme that persons should be able to choose to marry whomever they like.
If all ends in disaster, with the self-destructive Rodolfo initiating a murder-suicide, all that happens can be traced to the machinations of his father Walter, and Walter’s henchman Wurm to control Rodolfo’s future. Their efforts fail, and they are all destroyed in the process.
The overriding reason to see this opera is to experience one of Verdi’s great works that regrettably is not performed often enough. In addition, particularly with Francesca Zambello’s lucid direction, the story is more absorbing than would seem on a casual reading of its plot line.
I recommend the performance, without reservation, to both the veteran opera-goer and the person new to opera.