Sep. 22 SF Opera: Luisa Miller

Soprano Leah Crocetto as Luisa Miller and members of the San Francisco Opera Chorus in Verdi's "Luisa Miller" (photo: Cory Weaver)

Soprano Leah Crocetto as Luisa Miller and members of the San Francisco Opera Chorus in Verdi’s “Luisa Miller” (photo: Cory Weaver)

Rare Verdi, well done: SF Opera stages ‘Louisa Miller’

The singing was good all around, but the set was largely disappointing

By James Sohre
Contributing writer

Luisa Miller lurks in the shadows of Verdi’s major accomplishments.

Periodically the piece shows up in a successful reading such as this one at San Francisco Opera and makes us wonder why this engaging music doesn’t gain wider acceptance.

After all, it has all the impetuous invention of its predecessors Nabucco, Ernani and Macbeth, and foretells all the sublime lyric outpouring of Il Trovatore, La Traviata and Rigoletto that are soon to come. Plus it offers some wonderful showcase opportunities for six accomplished soloists, which was paramount to San Francisco Opera’s success.

In the title role, Leah Crocetto reveled in all the vocal attributes that have made her such a local favorite. She has a spinto tinge in her freely produced soprano that is alluring and velvety. In addition to the ability to effortlessly spin a hushed line above the staff and to effect a weighty world-weariness that illuminates her plight, Ms. Crocetto has enough heft to fill the house with pointed declamations during her tormented outbursts.

As a stage performer, she is of the rather restrained Caballe school. While her voice is absolutely effective communicating varied emotions and moods, her physical presence is more earthbound. She did every bit of staging conscientiously and with good intent, but at no time in the opera was she ever as engaging or spontaneous as when she displayed the infectious joy at her curtain call, basking in the boisterous approval. With her singing already so highly accomplished, I only urge her to imbue that palpable joy and commitment into her physical embodiment of the roles she undertakes.

Vitaliy Bilyy as Miller (photo: Cory Weaver)

Vitaliy Bilyy as Miller (photo: Cory Weaver)

Vitaliy Bilyy, a singer whom I’ve never heard before, possesses substantial gifts that served the role of Miller well. He has all the essentials for the part: a ringing, virile baritone with good upper extension, a fine ability to spin out legato lines, and a keen understanding of the Verdi style. Bilyy cuts a fine paternal figure, and his duets with daughter Luisa were quite affecting and beautifully voiced.

As the villainous Wurm, Andrea Silvestrelli was a sinuous, malevolent presence — deploying his biting, slightly acerbic bass with a secure musicality and fluid depravity. Daniel Sumegi was high powered and imposing as Count Walther. He could ride the orchestra with ease, and scored some potent triumphs as he manipulated the scenario to his ends. It must be said that Sumegi sometimes pushed his sizable baritone to the limit, resulting in some unsteadiness in mid-range passages.

The writing for the mezzo role of Federica is decidedly less interesting than anything else in the piece, but Ekaterina Semenchuk’s rich mezzo has strong presence and an opulent tone. If she was somewhat thwarted in igniting a more potent rivalry with Luisa for Rodolfo’s attentions, part of the blame belongs to Verdi.

Michael Fabiano as Rodolfo (photo: Cory Weaver)

Michael Fabiano as Rodolfo (photo: Cory Weaver)

As accomplished and poised as were the performers, star tenor Michael Fabiano simply sang everyone off the stage. Mr. Fabiano recalls all the strengths of the impetuous, impassioned, informed singing of the young Neil Schicoff — and with none of the eccentricities. Fabiano has a formidable thrust to his delivery, with an ability to bounce a phrase off the back wall.

Fabiano is also able to meld the tone into a whispered aside that draws an audience forward in their seats, looking to catch every subtlety of his delivery. His take-no-prisoners rendition of Quando le sere al placido was so heartbreaking, so raw, so gorgeous it stopped the show cold. Some even stood up to cheer it. For almost two minutes, nothing happened but cheering. And the reception was deserved. Fabiano may not have the widespread name recognition (yet) of a Jonas Kaufmann or a Piotr Beczala or a Juan Diego Flores, but he delivers the same high quality goods, and then some. Committed, gifted, intelligent, focused, musical, and oh yeah, handsome, Fabiano is the real deal.

Luisa Miller is assuredly not a meat and potatoes opera, and given the irregularity of performances I suppose it’s to be expected that a company might revive a past production. Michael Yeargan’s minimalist set design was perhaps innovative at its bygone inception, but now it seems to resonate to the artistic sensibilities of another era. A semicircular paneled backdrop featured impressionistic-fuzzy trees painted on a white surface. An upper stage right panel flew up regularly to become a doorway/entrance, or to reveal a flashback or an isolated big moment.

Occasionally, an entire four-foot section would rise up top to reveal a stage-wide band of stars, or such. A large I-beam on which a large painting hung hovered over the stage that could be spun or moved to suggest a locale or emotional state. The pattern of moving the painting slightly upstage, and revolving it during scene breaks, was as repetitive as opening and closing the door panel up right. And just as ineffective. Since the painting never ever traveled the two-thirds of the beam that came downstage, it was curious that the beam was that large at all — or even necessary.

Toss in a few rudimentary furniture pieces like a throne, table, chairs and a recurring bed, and that was pretty much it. Oh, and an imposing equestrian monument on which Federica rides during her entrance. With not much going on with the scenery (or Gary Marder’s functional lighting) to establish time, place, or point of view, Dunya Ramicova’s apt costumes admirably picked up the slack. The commoners were suitably clad in folk-like peasant attire, the soldiers and guards in vibrant hunter green, and the courtiers dressed up in radiant, rich red velvet.

If I’ve interpreted the credits correctly, Francesca Zambello’s original staging appears to have been re-imagined (or simply re-created) by Laurie Feldman. The character relationships were abundantly clear, although selected moments did not always set off the sparks consistent with the mood suggested by the music. The father-daughter relationship between Miller and Luisa could sometimes seem “by-the-numbers,” and Federica’s desperation did not make it firmly enough across the footlights.

Conversely, the blocking was often extremely well devised — such as in the longish double death scene, where plausibility was maintained and good variety was mined. The excellent chorus (under Ian Robertson’s direction) was moved about with considerable skill and a keen eye to creating diverse stage pictures. I very much liked the final scene that began with the assembled chorus behind the “barrier” wall of the large painting stage left, holding lighted candelabras that they ultimately left on the floor — suggesting the candles in the church where Federica and Rodolfo were imminently to be wed.

Music Director Nicola Luisotti began the evening with a high voltage, tumultuous reading of the restless Overture, which bode well for the events that followed. The solo clarinetist contributed exemplary work the entire night, but never more so than in the beautifully calibrated effects in the Overture. Maestro Luisotti kept the overall arc quickly paced, though perhaps a bit too impulsively driven.

In the end, the skilled cast and orchestra delivered a full-throttled, propulsive evening of music making that gave much pleasure, and bestowed considerable honor upon Verdi’s neglected opus.

James Sohre recently completed a 40-year career with US Army Entertainment, much of it spent in Germany as the Command-level Entertainment Chief. He continues to travel extensively and write about opera and musical events. He is production coordinator for Opera Las Vegas and heads the Young Artists program for which he just directed “A Passion for Puccini,” an evening of staged arias and scenes from all of Puccini’s works.

Details Box:
What: Verdi’s Luisa Miller, directed by Francesca Zambello
Who: San Francisco Opera
Where: San Francisco, CA
Performance reviewed: Sep. 22, 2015

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