Love, jealousy and revenge in Lyric Opera's Luisa Miller

  • The new-to-Chicago production of Verdi's romantic drama Luisa Miller opened Oct. 12 and offers three more performances, at 7 p.m. on Fri., Oct. 25, at 7 p.m. on Mon., Oct. 28, and at 2 p.m. on Thur., Oct. 31. © Todd Rosenberg Photography

    The new-to-Chicago production of Verdi's romantic drama Luisa Miller opened Oct. 12 and offers three more performances, at 7 p.m. on Fri., Oct. 25, at 7 p.m. on Mon., Oct. 28, and at 2 p.m. on Thur., Oct. 31. © Todd Rosenberg Photography

 
Natalia Dagenhart
Updated 10/23/2019 10:34 AM

"I adore art... when I am alone with my notes, my heart pounds and the tears stream from my eyes, and my emotion and my joys are too much to bear," said Italian opera composer Giuseppe Verdi. His early masterpiece Luisa Miller is a great example of his passion for music and extreme talent. This heart-wrenching romantic drama will swirl you in the waves of love, jealousy, pain and sorrow, and its rich melodies will bring you both joy and tears.

Lyric Opera's presentation of Verdi's Luisa Miller opened October 12 and offers three more performances, at 7 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 25, at 7 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 28, and at 2 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 31.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Luisa Miller is also Lyric's first presentation of this beautiful opera in more than three decades. It was first performed by Lyric Opera of Chicago on December 1, 1982. Many of Lyric's patrons have not seen this incredible gem on the stage of their favorite theater yet, which makes this production even more exciting and remarkable.

"One of the most memorable experiences operagoers can have is hearing a great work for the first time. This will be true for the majority of our audience with Luisa Miller, which Lyric has presented only once before," wrote Lyric's General Director, President and CEO Anthony Freud and Chairman David T. Ormesher in Lyric Notes. "We're delighted that this wonderful opera is returning to our stage, particularly since it inaugurates a very exciting development in the life of our company: an exploration of works from the early career of Giuseppe Verdi. Over the next few seasons Lyric will be presenting one early Verdi work per season, in productions that will bring them to life for a new generation of audiences. The riches of these pieces are boundless. In their melodies, their incredibly vivid characters, and their sweeping dramatic excitement, they're simply irresistible."

Verdi, a leading Italian operatic composer in the 19th century, started showing his great musical talent in early age and kept developing it through his lifetime. He premiered his first opera, Oberto, in 1839 in Milan at age 26, and the last of his 28 operas, Falstaff, in 1893 also in Milan at age 80. Verdi based his operas on high literary and dramatic values that he enhanced with his unbelievable talent of vividly transferring the main characters' feelings and emotions through the means of music. Luisa Miller was Verdi's 15th opera, and it is regarded as the beginning of the composer's "middle period." He wrote it in 1849 in his mid-thirties with the premiere taking place on December 8, 1849 at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples.

Luisa Miller is a three-act opera with an Italian libretto by prolific Italian librettist and playwright Salvadore Cammarano based on the play Kabale und Liebe (Intrigue and Love) by the German poet, philosopher and dramatist Friedrich von Schiller. It is an opera about innocent young lovers oppressed by their authoritarian fathers. The action takes place in the Tyrol in the middle of the 19th century. Luisa, the daughter the aging soldier Miller, is in love with Rodolfo, whom she knows as Carlo. Miller is dubious about their relationship. Soon Carlo's true identity is revealed. He is the son of the ruthless, unethical Count Walter whom Luisa's own father strongly dislikes. Wurm, who is Walter's retainer and who also loves Luisa, informs Miller about it hoping to marry Luisa. Meanwhile, Count Walter wants his son to marry the Duchess Federica, who is his niece and who was once in love with Rodolfo. Wurm tells Walter that his son loves Luisa Miller, and it angers the Count. Rodolfo admits to Federica that he loves Luisa, but Federica still wants to marry him.

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Miller tells Luisa that Carlo is in fact Rodolfo and that he has deceived her and wants to marry a wealthy woman. Yet, Rodolfo pleads to Luisa the sincerity of his love. Later on, Miller ends up being locked in jail for insulting the Count. Wurm tells Luisa that the only way to save her father is to write a letter where she pledges herself to Wurm. This false letter convinces Federica that Luisa is no threat to her union with Rodolfo, who is angered by the letter and finally agrees to marry Federica. Luisa decides to take her own life, but her father talks her out of it. Right before his wedding, Rodolfo come to Luisa and pours poison into a decanter on the table. He asks Luisa if she wrote the letter and when she confirms it, he drinks some poisoned water and also gives some to Luisa. Rodolfo tells her that they are both dying and Luisa reveals to him the truth about the letter. She dies in Miller's arms; Rodolfo shoots Wurm and also dies.

Lyric's presentation of this masterpiece is sung in Italian with projected English translations and runs 2 hours and 45 minutes with 1 intermission. Internationally renowned director Francesca Zambello directs this production designed by famous American set designer Michael Yeargan, popular costume designer Dunya Ramicova, and well-known lighting designer Mark McCullough. This production is owned by San Francisco Opera with scenery construction and painting by the San Francisco Opera Scenic Shop, and costumes fabricated by the San Francisco Opera Costume Shop.

One very exciting fact about Lyric's Luisa Miller is that famous bel canto specialist, Maestro Enrique Mazzola, conducts this outstanding production. As Verdi said once, "The success of our operas rests most of the time in the hands of the conductor. This person is as necessary as a tenor or a prima donna." Being widely respected for conducting various operatic repertoire and particularly the works of Verdi and the bel canto composers, Mazzola is a great fit for conducting Luisa Miller. Maestro Mazzola will succeed Sir Andrew Davis as music director at the start of the 2021/2022 season.

The chorus plays an important role in Verdi's operas. Choral parts underline and emphasize the emotions and the feelings of the main characters and beautify Verdi's rapidly moving and powerful operas. After the extremely emotional and dramatic overture, the first act starts with a scene where the villagers gather outside Luisa's house to serenade her on her birthday. Lyric Opera Chorus, prepared by extremely talented Chorus Master Michael Black, shines during this scene as during many other important scenes in the opera. This beautiful romantic drama is also abounding with breathtaking duets and thrilling ensembles presented by its internationally renowned cast.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

On Sunday, October 20, American soprano Toni Marie Palmertree sang the title role of Luisa for the entire performance replacing Bulgarian soprano Krassimira Stoyanova, who was ill on that day and who is expected to return for the remaining performances of Luisa Miller. Toni Marie Palmertree is a recent graduate of the prestigious Adler Fellowship Program at San Francisco Opera. She impressed the Lyric audience with her tender, yet strong and flexible voice and her wide vocal range. Palmertree's artistic approach to this challenging role, thoughtful and professional presentation of her vocal part, and the natural beauty of her voice touched everyone's heart. She demonstrated excellent breathing technique, beautiful high notes and touching timbre of her voice singing demanding arias such as "Lo vidi e il primo palpito," "Tu puniscimi o Signore," "La tomba e un letto sparso di fiori," and "Ah! l'ultima preghiera." She was also absolutely stunning while singing as part of duets and ensembles.

American tenor Jonathan Burton portrayed Rodolfo after intermission for the second part of the performance on Sunday, October 20 replacing Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja, who had sung the first act with an announcement that he was suffering from a cold. He was unable to continue for the second portion of the performance, but he is expected to return for the remaining performances of Luisa Miller. Both tenors did their best presenting the role of this devoted and passionate young lover whose strong feelings of love, jealousy, and suffering are heard in every note. During the first act, the role of Rodolfo requires participation in several challenging and extremely beautiful duets, trios and quartets, and Calleja masterfully performed his role. During the second and the third acts, this role demands even more vocal work, as besides singing in ensemble with other singers the tenor presents numerous arias, such as "Il foglio dunque," "Oh! fede negar potessi agli occhi," and "Quando le sere al placido," Burton's incredible singing was welcomed by a round of applause.

The role of Miller is brilliantly portrayed by Hawaiian baritone Quinn Kelsey, who is a Ryan Opera Center alumnus and a 2015 winner of the Metropolitan Opera's Beverly Sills Award. Being considered one of today's few true Verdi baritones, Kelsey impressed the audience with the nobility of the color of his voice, the ability to sing in a high register and along the heavy orchestration. The structure of his voice and his deep understanding of his character help Kelsey to masterfully present Luisa's sensitive father. His powerful, yet sincere voice shines through the entire opera and particularly in arias "Sacra la scelta e d'un consorte" and "Ah! fu giusto il mio sospetto," as well as in touching duets and ensembles.

Lyric Opera's patrons know American bass-baritone Christian Van Horn who performed sixteen roles since 2004/2005. In Luisa Miller, this Ryan Opera Center alumnus and winner of the 2018 Richard Tucker Award brilliantly portrays ambitious Count Walter. His incredible artistic presentation, strong voice and extreme energy enable him to find the best way to present this challenging role. Van Horn's incredible timbre, deep voice and sincerity are heard in his every appearance onstage, including his impressive singing in duets and ensembles and in the arias "Ah! tutto m'arride," "I mio sangue la vita darei," and "Egli delira sul matin degli anni."

Young and talented American bass Soloman Howard makes his successful Lyric debut as Walter's conniving retainer Wurm. He will return to Lyric later this season as Fafner in the Ring cycle. Howard's incredible vocal technique and masterful portrayal of this deceitful person electrify this production during this character's numerous duets and ensembles with other singers. Renowned Russian mezzo-soprano Alisa Kolosova plays Duchess Federica, to whom Rodolfo is engaged. Her appearance on a horse impressed the audience, but her first-rate vocal technique, deep and beautiful voice and excellent artistic presentation thrilled the lovers of Verdi's music even more. The role of the peasant Laura is presented by talented American mezzo-soprano Kathleen Felty. Participation in this production is a Lyric debut for this first-year Ryan Opera Center member, who thrives to deliver excellence and mastery every time she appears on stage.

Even if Luisa Miller ends in catastrophe with three people dying, Verdi's sumptuously beautiful romantic drama breathes passion and excitement in its every note and word. Memorable arias, breathtaking duets, thrilling ensembles and sensitive orchestration make this opera unforgettable, and the Lyric Opera's beautiful cast makes hearts pounds and tears stream from people's eyes; just as it happened to Verdi when he was composing his brilliant music.

For more information and to order tickets, go to https://www.lyricopera.org/productions/2019-20/luisa-miller/ or call 312-827-5600.

Natalia Dagenhart

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