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Performances

Joseph Calleja and Krassimira Stoyanova [Photo courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago]
31 Oct 2019

Luisa Miller at Lyric Opera of Chicago

For its second production of the current season Lyric Opera of Chicago is featuring Giuseppe Verdi’s Luisa Miller.

Luisa Miller at Lyric Opera of Chicago

A review by Salvatore Calomino

Above: Joseph Calleja and Krassimira Stoyanova [Photo courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago]

 

The role of Luisa is sung by Krassimira Stoyanova and that of Rodolfo, known first as Carlo, by Joseph Calleja. Luisa’s father Miller is performed by Quinn Kelsey, and Count Walter, father of Rodolfo, is Christian Van Horn. The Duchess Federica is sung by Alisa Kolosova, while Solomon Howard performs as Wurm, a subordinate of Count Walter. The Lyric Opera Orchestra is conducted by Enrique Mazzola, and the Lyric Opera Chorus is prepared by its Chorus Master Michael Black. The production, owned by the San Francisco Opera, is by Francesca Zambello. Sets, costumes, and lighting are designed by Michael Yeargan, Dunya Ramicova, and Mark McCullough respectively. Mr. Howard makes his debut at Lyric Opera in these performances.

In the first scene of the opening act Luisa stands apart at stage right while the chorus of villagers seems to fill much of the remaining open space. In this production the sets are conceived with an imaginative use of an open space at stage rear. The space is at times covered - in this first scene with a cloth bearing illustrations that denote an Alpine landscape - or it is left open to accommodate entrances or departures altering the focus of performers on stage. The position of society as a witness to individual or familial misfortune in love is a frequent device in the genre of late eighteenth-century “bourgeois tragedy” to which Verdi’s source by Friedrich Schiller belongs. For the lovers themselves the tragedy lies in the unbridgeable distance occasioned by class.

Once the villagers sing their good wishes to Luisa on this her birthday, Miller enters to add his paternal compliments. In this role Mr. Kelsey makes the most of the declamatory phrasing which expresses both joy and apprehension. His flexible baritone assumes an ominous cast when he broaches the topic of an “ignoto” (“unknown”) Carlo with his daughter. In her first aria, as a response to Miller, Ms. Stoyanova sings of her love for this newcomer [“m’amo, l’amai” (“He fell in love with me, and I with him”)] after calming her father’s fears. Rather than singing the individual notes in a skipping progression suggesting the character’s infatuation Stoyanova expresses the line in sustained pitches, so that Luisa effectively sounds more mature.

Almost immediately Carlo enters. In this role Calleja displays the focused, urgent commitment so vital to a principal Verdian tenor. The impetuous lover Carlo and Luisa exchange their assurances of continued devotion. The protagonists sing in succession and jointly of language’s inability to express their love, during which Calleja and Stoyanova sing with rounded, full-voiced lyrical ardor. Their momentary disappearance with the crowd into the Alpine church is followed by the appearance of Wurm and his confrontation with Miller.

The role of Count Walter’s deputy Wurn is performed with imposing force by Mr. Howard, yet his voice retains a flexible line with considerable variety in low pitches. His opening words to Miller, “Ferma ed ascolta” (“Stop and listen”) are rife with menace, just as the following address Howard expresses Wurm’s “gelosia” with accelerating pressure while assuring Miller that he will not relinquish his desires for Luisa. In the gloriously lyrical response, “Sacra la scelta” (“Sacred is the choice”) Mr. Kelsey’s Miller resists the threats of authority and elaborates on his duties as father and protector. Kelsey performs this central aria with accomplished legato as well as decorative touches to enhance repeated phrases such as “Non son tiranno, padre son io” (“I am not a tyrant, I am a father.”). Kelsey is especially adept at singing Verdi’s descending lines with emotional force, just as his extended pitches at the close emphasize the significance of this aria.

In general, the low voices in the cast leave an especially strong impression. In a subsequent scene in the noble’s palace Count Walter muses on his position. He has summoned Rodolfo in order to force a meeting between his son and the Duchessa as a prospective bride. Mr. Van Horn’s performance resonates with noble demeanor, his steadfast convictions on family and obligation reflected in his urgent declamation of “Il mio sangue, la vita darei” (“I would give my blood, my life”), followed by forte top notes matching the orchestra and a concluding phrase descending to the depths of the Count’s soul. At the same time when confronted later by Rodolfo’s awareness of his secret Van Horn expresses shades of vulnerability which his character is eager to conceal. Music from afar, growing gradually in volume, announces the Duchess’s arrival. Ms. Kolosova’s imaginative entry on a stylized horse heralds her characters noble lineage while causing awe among those who greet her. In her pivotal scene with Rodolfo Kolosova’s solid vocal range captures the Duchessa’s importunate declarations with chilling emotional fervor. Calleja’s requests to be released from this grip are equally exciting as the scene emerges as one of the most dramatically exciting of the production. The duet also sets into motion the remaining ensembles of the first act culminating in the near arrest of Luisa and her father as well as the rupture between father and son.

The scenes of Act II and III are considerably more intimate than the public gaze and pageantry associated with preceding, longer act. The dramatic structure of Act II allows for the intrigue from the German source (“Kabale”) to be realized. Despite Rodolfo’s threat to his father, Miller has been jailed before the start of the nexr act. Luisa must agree to Wurm’s demands in order to aid her father. At the scene between Wurm and Luisa Stoyanova projects an heroic determination new to her character just as Howard’s selfish insincerity as Wurm seems to grow with each line. By insisting that she sign a letter committing herself to Wurm, this henchman of Count Walter provides testimony for Rodolfo’s eventual mistrust of his beloved. Calleja’s reaction captures the wistful mood of “Quando le sere al placido” (“When at evening in the calm light”) and recalls his bristle of outbursts at the close of the first act. Yet by the start of Act III the protagonist lovers have here reached a series of fatalistic resolutions. Both Stoyanova and Calleja sing poignantly of their renewed devotion but society’s threat now limits their love to the time they have left until the poison takes effect. Once Wurm is killed in a parting blow, Count Walter is left alone with his secret and its torments.

Salvatore Calomino

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