A grand spectacle

Luisa Miller, played by Barbara Quintiliani, learns her father has been taken to jail and awaits execution, in a performance of Luisa Miller in the Amphitheater Saturday. Photo by Ellie Haugsby.

Chautauqua Opera scores with a full-blooded Verdian ‘Luisa Miller’

David Shengold | Guest Reviewer

Following last season’s grand Norma, the Chautauqua Opera Company achieved even finer results Saturday evening with a fine but under-appreciated Giuseppe Verdi work that represents a midpoint between the bel canto style of Norma and the full-out “music drama” Verdi and Wagner were to develop later in the 19th century: 1849’s Luisa Miller. While, it’s never been a crowd-pleaser like Rigoletto or La traviata, it’s a passionate story — full of melodrama, but also full of feeling — and the music is wonderful, culminating in a third act that ranks among the great single acts in Verdi’s huge output. It certainly pleased the crowd at the Ampitheater; kudos to Jay Lesenger (the artistic and general director of the company as well as this straightforward, flowing production) for having the vision to program something not a “top-10” title for the benefit of Chautauqua’s audience.

The score was in fine, idiomatic hands with conductor Joseph Colaneri; some of the rushing string passages in the overture could have used another rehearsal, but beyond that, the players sounded terrific, and Colaneri presented the piece’s complex architecture — it has several nonpareil numbers, like Act Two’s a cappella quartet for soprano, mezzo and two basses, playing off innovations found in earlier scores by Gaetano Donizetti and Saverio Mercadante — with understanding and sweep.

Plus, Lesenger and Colaneri had assembled a cast that could deal more than soundly with Verdi’s testing writing (I have heard less well-cast Luisa performances at the Met).

Ron Kadri furnished handsome, swiftly changeable set units, well-lit by Michael Baumgarten (having an initial spotlight on the eventually fatal drinking cup was a fine touch from Lesenger). The period costumes (B.G. FitzGerald) and wigs (Georgianna Eberhard) looked handsome.

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The opera, premiered in Naples, is an adaptation of Friedrich von Schiller’s 1784 play “Kabale und Liebe” (“Intrigue and Love”), which still holds the stage in German-speaking countries. The opera marked the third of four Verdian Schiller treatments, the others being Giovanna d’Arco (1845), I masnadieri (1847) and Don Carlos (1867).

Each of these Schiller-based operas contains an essentially murderous relationship between a father and a child. In Luisa Miller, it’s between the illicitly established Count Walter and his freer-thinking son Rodolfo, who so dislikes his father’s world that he has pretended to be a commoner to woo the title heroine, with disastrous consequences.

(Such disguised-down noble suitors crowded the Romantic stage: think of Rigoletto and Giselle). Along with I masnadieri and 1850’s Stiffelio — heard here in 2004 — Luisa Miller stands out as one of Verdi’s only three works set in Germany.

Librettist Salvatore Cammarano, best know for such Gaetano Donizetti collaborations as Lucia di Lammermoor and Roberto Devereux, had already worked with Verdi on two rather problematic operas (Alzira and La battaglia di Legnano); later, he began Il trovatore before dying at only 51.

His adaptation of Schiller in Luisa marks his strongest work for Verdi: he intensified the class difference between the central lovers, making the merely upper-class Walters into counts and changing Luisa’s father from a middle-class musician to a bluff retired soldier.

Barbara Quintiliani, last year’s imposing but uneven Norma, here gave the best performance I have heard from her. She offers a big, aptly italianate sound that dominated the ensembles but could also float delicate pianissimi.

Luisa is not an “iconic” prima donna role like Aida or Tosca: created by Marietta Gazzaniga, who also created Lina in Stiffelio, the part demands everything: fleet coloratura, tonal amplitude, long soaring lines, dramatic accents. Only the heroines of Verdi’s nearly contemporary operas Les vêpres siciliennes, Il trovatore and La traviata make similar challenges — though the last-named rarely receives suitable vocalism.

In fact the Met recently “looks cast” a striking, telegenic blonde who could barely handle the music and broadcast the sorry results worldwide. Quintiliani and her very promising tenor, Gregory Carroll, are not physically likely to find a place in such HD-driven projects; but unlike many who do, they offer voices suitable for Verdi’s testing scope and orchestration.

Quintiliani handled the tricky entrance coloratura quite well and she can certainly soar; the voice has not only power and shine but weight at the bottom. There remained about 3 percent of the role that gave her accustomed problems with intonation (she tends to flat ascending intervals when singing out), but her Luisa was an impressive feat — plus a sympathetic presence.

Lesenger incisively played up the father/daughter dynamic here. So often an emotional fulcrum for Verdi, who lost his daughters when they were very young, the father/daughter duet is key in many of his works; Luisa Miller offers, with Simon Boccanegra, the supreme example; Quintiliani and baritone Todd Thomas did it full justice here. Tellingly, in the opera’s final trio, “Ah, vieni meco” — Verdi cannily saved the very best tune for last — Lesenger visually paired Luisa not with her (also) dying lover Rodolfo, but with her father.

Miller is a wonderful part, created by the Milanese baritone Achille de Bassini, for whom Verdi wrote four roles over an 18-year period. Todd Thomas — once upon a time a Chautauqua Young Artist — returned for his sixth role as a mature artist. He gave a full-voiced and stylish “Verdi baritone” performance — that special category denotes a certain scope, ease in the upper register (Thomas sailed up to an interpolated high A flat to cap his rousing cabaletta) and broad phrasing.

His was the most completely realized vocalization of the night, and he acted the part with apt dignity and filial feeling. Thomas has a fine regional career going; I’ve been hearing him excel for a decade in places like Syracuse, Wilmington and Austin and still can’t figure out why he’s only done small parts at the Met — which has sent onstage several far less qualified Millers — and doesn’t get snapped up by some major German house.

Gregory Carroll’s Rodolfo made it clear why he is in such demand for Richard Strauss’s high-lying Bacchus: he offers an impressively solid tenor with nice finish and ring, traveling easily up top. The soft section of the ravishing “Quando le sere al placido” — perhaps Verdi’s loveliest tenor aria — needed firmer legato treatment, and Carroll might bone up on Carlo Bergonzi’s recorded legacy to bring more light and shade to a Verdian line; but he should make a fine career. The two basses — Wayne Tigges (the vicious Count Walter)  and Michael Ventura (his baddie assistant Wurm, who covets Luisa himself) — looked and acted very well and sang very solidly in their rare bass/bass duet. Both offered quality vocalism; I might have cast them in one another’s parts, since Ventura’s sound is darker and Tigges spits out words more incisively. Young Artist Daryl Freedman showed a striking dark timbre and attractive presence as the Duchess Federica, Luisa’s rival; but it’s a very tough assignment technically, in my experience best left to very experienced Verdi mezzos (Christa Ludwig, Mignon Dunn, Bianca Berini) and Freedman is still developing her resources. Another Young Artist, mezzo Victoria Vargas, made Luisa’s friend Laura’s brief contributions telling.

It’s tempting to repeat verbatim a sentence I write last year after Norma: “The choral work under Carol Rausch was excellent throughout, full-voiced fresh of tone and accurate in entries.” But more should be said, because in Norma, the chorus functions mainly as scene-setting filler, or in a call-and-response manner; Verdi and Cammarano assign them much more dramatic responsibility. In fact, they begin the show, assembling quietly one morning to fête and bestow gifts on a friend (Luisa), who is awaiting her fiancée’s arrival; here and elsewhere, this opera shows faint structural parallels with Vincenzo Bellini’s La sonnambula (1831).

The chorus acts as an observer to the most public and musically the grandest scene in Verdi’s opera: at first we hear two groups of men hunting offstage — a stereo effect that worked wonderfully in the Amphitheater. Later, it emerges that it is Luisa who is being hunted; Count Walter arrives to humiliate her and threaten her outraged father. The full chorus takes part as observers in the huge concertato that builds, a magnificent passage well shaped here by Colaneri that looks ahead to similar tense public confrontations in Don Carlos, Aida, the revised Simon Boccanegra and Otello.

A point reiterated in Schiller’s Enlightenment-inspired oeuvre is that rich and powerful people do what they want to their less powerful neighbors — a state that, sadly, can be observed in any community or society. Count Walter and Wurm live on in the boardrooms and secret police offices of today — but in familial terms, Walter’s nastiness has few parallels in opera.

Bright English surtitles projected on twin screens aided comprehension, though one or two moments (like “The favored youth presented himself to you falsely” and the Britishism “grey”) unaccountably evoked old-style Cinecittà translations done — as Gore Vidal has alleged — by somebody’s Finnish au pair. But the only real complaint to be made about this presentation of Luisa Miller was that it was a one-off event; it’s a shame more Chautauqua audiences could not have reaped the benefits of Verdi’s music and all the fine work involved.

A Philadelphia-based arts critic, David Shengold has written for Opera News, Opera (UK), Theatre Journal and Time Out New York, among many venues. He has contributed program essays to the Metropolitan, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Covent Garden and Washington National Opera programs and lectured for NYCO,  Glimmerglass Festival and Philadelphia’s Wilma Theatre. He trained and acted at Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, Mass. and has taught on opera, literature and cultural history at Oberlin, Mount Holyoke and Williams Colleges.