Luisa Miller: Opera Company stages Verdi’s seldom-performed melodrama Saturday


Photo by Ellie Haugsby.

Josh Cooper | Staff Writer

Sex, rivalry, secret identities, extortion, poisonings, sword fights and murder.

Sound like a typical evening in Chautauqua?

These may not be normal occurrences in this placid town, but Saturday is an exception, as the melodrama of Giuseppe Verdi’s Luisa Miller explodes across the Amphitheater stage in operatic proportions.

For one night only, the Chautauqua Opera Company will stage this rarely performed oeuvre of the 19th-century Italian composer. Verdi’s melodramma tragico in tre atti, as the librettist describes it, was first heard in Naples in 1849. It is based on the play of Friedrich von Schiller, “Kabale und Liebe,” which, loosely translated, means “Politics and Passion.”

The story is full of over-the-top drama. Jay Lesenger, the Chautauqua Opera Company’s artistic/general director, said the size of the story fits the size of the stage.

“It’s larger than life,” Lesenger said. “I think that’s great for the Amphitheater because it’s a larger-than-life venue.”

The Drama

The scene is Tyrol, in what we now know as Austria, in the 1700s. Luisa is the daughter of a soldier, and she is in love with a man who the town knows as Carlo, but who is really Rodolfo, the son of the powerful Count Walter.

The two pledge their undying love. Luisa’s father, Miller, is not so certain about the scheme. His fears are confirmed when Rodolfo’s true identity is revealed by Count Walter’s henchman, Wurm, who is as evil as his name suggests.

Wurm also is in love with Luisa and plans to marry her. He tells the Count about Rodolfo’s love for Luisa. The Count does everything he can to break up the relationship. The Count wants to have his son marry a recently widowed duchess, Federica. Rodolfo reveals to Federica that he loves another woman, but that does little to deter the duchess.

Later, Miller tells Luisa that Rodolfo is not being honest and is about to marry the duchess. Rodolfo comes to Luisa to try to convince her that he still loves her. Count Walter storms in and threatens to throw both Luisa and her father into prison. Rodolfo secures their freedom by blackmailing them with information about how the Count and Wurm murdered his cousin to gain power.

Act II opens with Luisa learning that her father has been imprisoned for being impertinent toward the Count. Wurm tells Luisa that she can save her father by admitting she sought to be with Rodolfo for his status. She does as Wurm asks and must go to the castle to declare her love for him in front of the duchess and the Count. Rodolfo hears of Luisa’s confession of love for Wurm and considers violent retribution against him when the Count enters and convinces him that the best way to seek vengeance against the treacherous Luisa is to marry Federica.

As Act III begins, Miller is released from prison, and he and Luisa agree to leave the village the next day. Rodolfo enters with a vial of poison to confront Luisa about her disloyalty, and havoc ensues.

Politics and opera in Verdi’s Italy

Luisa Miller came at an important time in Verdi’s career development. Many historians break Verdi’s opera writing into three periods. The first period began in 1839 with the composition of his first opera, Oberto, and continued to approximately the composition of Luisa Miller in 1849.

In this first period, the subject matter toward which Verdi was drawn was mostly political, and the operas were very grandiose. He wrote an opera about Joan of Arc and the Crusades, one about Nebuchadnezzar and the Hebrews in Babylon, and one based on “Macbeth” and the tensions between the Scotts and the Brits.

In all of these, Verdi was making masked political statements about his homeland of Italy. During Verdi’s time, Italy was not yet united but rather was a collection of city-states, some belonging to Austria and some to France, among others. Verdi was heavily involved in the movement to unify Italy under one flag, and many of the statements he made in these early operas had subtexts to that effect.

One element that Verdi uses to create these grandiose dramas is the chorus. In the early operas, the choruses are huge and play major roles, often depicting enormous battle scenes.

In the middle period, the beginnings of which are seen in Luisa Miller, Verdi turns the focus of his operas to more domestic issues. He explores the complexity of humanity and moves away from political statements to some degree.

“In the middle period, he begins to explore human relationships,” Lesenger said. “The chorus often shrinks in size. Sometimes there are just men in the chorus like in Rigoletto of 1851,” Lesenger said.

With these operas, the chorus is not used to fight large battles, and there are fewer scenes as gargantuan as those in the early operas. Another difference is in how Verdi uses the orchestra. The orchestrations in these middle operas are more subtle. He plays with tone color, texture, motif and slight changes in character. Opera critic Julian Budden has observed about Luisa Miller in particular, “In no other of (Verdi’s) overtures is so much musical thought concentrated in so few notes.”

Verdi was starting to become a very celebrated opera composer at this time in his career.

“These are what he called his years in the galley,” Joseph Colaneri, who will be conducting the production. “These were his work years. He was turning out a great number of operas — about one every other year.”

It was in this period that Verdi composed the opera La Traviata, which has come to be the second most-performed opera of all time, behind Mozart’s The Magic Flute.

In the later period, beginning roughly around the time when he composed Un Ballo In Maschera in 1859, Verdi began combining the large themes and productions of his early operas with the human focus of the middle operas. Some of what are considered his most rich operas were composed during this period, like Aida and Otello.

“In the later operas, like Aida and Otello, the chorus takes on a larger persona again,” Colaneri said. “But this time, Verdi is combining his love for the large, elaborate scene with all the things he explored and did in the middle period, which is all about personal relationships.”

Luisa Miller today

For reasons both known and unknown, Luisa Miller remains one of the least performed operas that Verdi ever wrote, despite coming at an important crossroads in his composing career.

Lesenger said the main factor in limiting the performance of this opera is the heavy load that is placed on the singers.

“This is a piece that doesn’t get done all that often,” Lesenger said. “Part of the reason is because putting together a really strong cast of this particular work is not so easy. It’s a really demanding of everybody.”

Tenor Gregory Carroll, who will be singing the role of Rodolfo, agreed.

“There are two main reasons this opera isn’t done much: Luisa and Rodolfo,” Carroll said.

Soprano Barbara Quintiliani, who will be singing Luisa, said her role is particularly difficult.

“It’s extremely demanding,” Quintiliani said. “You need a spinto soprano with great agility and a huge range. Also, you need stamina. The soprano is on stage for a large portion of the whole show.”

A spinto soprano is a category of voice that combines the ease in the upper range of a lyric soprano with the ability to be pushed dynamically to slice through lush operatic orchestration rather than floating over it like a dramatic soprano.

“And it’s very demanding emotionally, too,” Quintiliani said. “If you allow yourself to go there as an actor, your emotional health is on the line.”

Colaneri is no stranger to conducting Luisa Miller. He got his introduction to conducting the opera when he led the Metropolitan Opera’s production of 2001. He said he fell in love with it then.

While the staging and costuming of this production are very traditional, other companies have experimented with more modern versions. Earlier this year, the Bavarian State Opera mounted a more esoteric performance of the piece, which featured five Luisa Millers, and a set the entirety of which rotated on a turntable and employed a dizzying array of mirrors. In this production, directed by Claus Guth, the character of Wurm is not a separate entity but exists in the reflection of other characters in the mirrors, representing their evil influences.

Chautauqua Opera Company’s version is nowhere near as abstruse but will still be thrilling to audiences, especially in the Amphitheater, Lesenger said.

“What’s fun about the Amp is that it enables me to pick repertory that we wouldn’t necessarily be able to do in Norton Hall, and Luisa Miller works great in that regard. It’s got a larger-than-life aspect, and we can use the full orchestra rather than a reduction,” Lesenger said.

Portraits of two singers

The two lovers in this production, played by Carroll and Quintiliani, said they are both excited to be able to be a part of the production.

Carroll said this is his first introduction to Chautauqua, and so far he’s liking the experience.

“I never heard of Chautauqua until I got offered a contract to come do this opera,” Carroll said. “As Jay puts it, its ‘opera camp.’ It’s very laid-back, but incredibly high-caliber art that goes on here.”

Carroll is from the Seattle area and earned an undergrad degree at Western Washington University and a graduate degree at the University of Washington in Seattle. He started off as a percussionist until his first year at the university, when he switched to voice. It was in that time that he transitioned from singing baritone to tenor.

He then took part in the Merola Opera Program at the San Francisco Opera, which led to a stage audition for James Levine at the Metropolitan Opera Company. That resulted in even more opportunities.

“I’m at the beginning of my career,” Carroll said.

He said his character, Rodolfo, is a simple man.

“He’s young and in love,” Carroll said. “He’s just a good guy in love who doesn’t want a lot of attention drawn to himself. That’s why he prefers to not be known as the Count’s son.”

This is not the first technically challenging role Carroll has sung. In fact, he’s found himself gravitating toward them seemingly by chance.

“This is the pinch I’m in,” Carroll said. “I’m going to be thrown into demanding roles time and time again. Since becoming a tenor, I’ve done three roles repeatedly: Bacchus in Ariadne auf Naxos, and Pagliacci (by Ruggero Leoncavallo.)”

This is Quintiliani’s fourth production with the Chautauqua Opera Company. She said the atmosphere keeps bringing her back.

“I’ve come back because it’s a nice place to work and everyone’s really nice to you and friendly,” she said. “It’s just a good time. It’s a good place to spend three weeks.”

She hails from Quincy, Mass., but with her stepfather in the Navy, she grew up “all over the world.”

“We even lived on Guam for three years,” Quintiliani said.

She describes her childhood as a sort of vagabond, gypsy lifestyle.

She went to the New England Conservatory of Music for her undergraduate degree. She won the Metropolitan National Opera Council Auditions in her senior year and went to the Houston Grand Opera Studio. She then continued her education at the Washington National Opera.

She said she can relate to aspects of her character Luisa.
“I’m a tough broad from humble beginnings, too,” Quintiliani said. “I’m from south Boston. My family is blue collar, too. I relate to her entirely.”

Like her character, Quintiliani said she found herself in close contact with people of higher status.

“Opera has allowed me to move into different circles,” she said, “going from living in public housing to singing at the Kennedy Center Honors and sitting next to Rudolph Giuliani and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

“In some ways, I felt uncomfortable there. So I understand when Luisa meets these noble people for the first time and how overwhelming it is. And she doesn’t really know how to behave, and it’s very uncomfortable.”

‘Part of the Chautauqua Mix’

Lesenger said that Chautauquans will come to the opera even if they know nothing about opera because of the experimental mindset that is present at Chautauqua.

“I think this is part of the Chautauqua mix,” he said. “Why come to Chautauqua and not try all the different things that are here?

“On Thursday night, you can go see ‘Three Sisters’; Friday night, you can go see Natalie Merchant; and on Saturday, you can go see an opera,” he said. “That’s the great thing about this place.”