Chicago Opera Review: LUISA MILLER (Lyric Opera)

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by Barnaby Hughes on October 18, 2019

in Music,Theater-Chicago


Verdi’s Luisa Miller has only been produced at Lyric Opera once before, and that was thirty-seven years ago! For its rarity alone, this production should be seen. It is also features an incredibly haunting score that often slips into minor keys. The singing is almost uniformly excellent, but the casting is disappointing, as is some of the acting and stage direction. A lackluster production is the result, one that left this reviewer surprisingly unmoved.

One puzzle that I still haven’t figured out is why an Italian opera is named for a character with an English surname. Unlike some of Verdi’s other English-themed operas, Luisa Miller is not based on Shakespeare, but on the German playwright Friedrich von Schiller. His 1784 play Kabale und Liebe (Intrigue and Love) centers on a Tyrolian peasant named Luisa Miller. Even in the original German she is named Miller (not Müller). Both the son of a count (Rodolfo) and the count’s loyal henchman (Wurm) seek Luisa’s hand in marriage. Count Walter, however, wants his son to marry Federica, Duchess of Ostheim. The stage is thus well-set for conflict, Luisa and Rodolfo’s love doomed to end in tragedy.

There’s something of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in Luisa Miller, not least in the tragic suicide of the two lovers using poison. Moreover, two of the actors in this production, Joseph Calleja as Rodolfo and Christian Van Horn as Count Walter were in Lyric’s earlier production of Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette as Romeo and Friar Lawrence, respectively. Instead of warring families, however, there is class warfare: nobles versus peasants. And there is nothing of youth in this love story. Or in the cast.

At the risk of being ageist, the heroine of this opera is simply too old for the part. According to Wikipedia, Bulgarian soprano Krassimira Stoyanova is 57 years old. The role of her father is played by Quinn Kelsey, who is 41. Her suitor Rodolfo is played by Joseph Calleja who is also 41. The role of his father is played by Christian Van Horn, also 41. And Luisa Miller’s other suitor, Solomon Howard’s Wurm, is even younger. That said, Stoyanova’s voice is remarkably strong and expressive (for any age), but the same cannot be said for her acting, which was far too inward and introspective to be compelling. In short, it left me cold. I wasn’t convinced that she was in love with Rodolfo.

Neither was I convinced that Rodolfo loved Luisa. There was simply no chemistry between them. Nor did it seem as if Calleja made much effort to act; he might as well have been giving a concert performance. Calleja can sing beautifully at times, especially in some of his more lyrical arias, but there’s something very odd about his high notes. They sound unnatural, constricted even, as if they’re being strangled out of him; it’s very off-putting and consistently so.

This production is on much firmer grounder when it comes to the cast’s basses and baritones, especially the rare bass duet gloriously sung by Christian Van Horn and Solomon Howard. The latter makes his Lyric debut along with first-year Ryan Opera Center member Kathleen Felty as Anna. Both have beautiful, clear voices and excellent diction. I look forward to seeing more of them. Although Quinn Kelsey is the only cast member singled out as making his role debut, it is likely that many others in the cast are also. Especially in Act I, the opening performance felt like a dress rehearsal. The acting and stage movement was stiff, the singing and playing was hesitant, even the direction and conducting seemed cautious. Fortunately, the show began to run more smoothly towards the end as all involved gained in confidence, which bodes well for future performances.

Lastly, Michael Yeargan’s set design did not make for the smoothest of transitions, particularly between Acts II and III, despite its simple conception. Basically, there was a semicircular backdrop made up of painted panels that could be lowered or raised as needed and a large flat panel suspended from a beam that could be moved forward or backward. This flat panel had at least four different images on it and had to be spun around at various times to mark scene changes. At first, I thought the various panels had images projected upon them, which would probably have been far more efficient, but they were not.

Much is made of Verdi’s Luisa Miller as transitional in the composer’s development, but this production simply does not do it justice. The whole things seems under-rehearsed, the casting flawed, the acting disappointing, and the story overwrought in a way peculiar to German Romanticism. In sum, this is a stodgy production that I can only recommend to die-hard Verdi fans for its comparative rarity. Let’s hope that Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking gets better treatment; opening on November 2.

photos by Todd Rosenberg

Luisa Miller
Lyric Opera of Chicago
Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive
ends on October 31, 2019
for tickets, call 312.827.5600 or visit Lyric Opera

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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