Uneven singing, lack of dramatic fire make for low-voltage Verdi in Lyric’s “Luisa Miller”

Sun Oct 13, 2019 at 2:03 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Krassimira Stoyanova and Joseph Calleja star in Verdi’s Luisa Miller at Lyric Opera. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

With a worthy cast, a new production and Enrique Mazzola making his first Lyric Opera conducting appearance since being named music director designate, it seemed like all the important elements were in alignment for a successful performance of Verdi’s Luisa Miller.

Well, it looked good on paper.

Despite some admirable moments, Lyric’s first production of Luisa Miller in 37 years proved a surprising misfire at its opening Saturday night—undone by an overparted soprano in the title role, and an overall lack of Verdian fire and drama coming from the pit under Mazzola’s direction.     

The opera tells of the title naive village girl who is in love with a mysterious stranger, “Carlo.”  Luisa’s father is dubious and with good reason for her beloved is, in reality, Rodolfo, the son of the evil and corrupt Count Walter. The Count is bent on destroying the lovers’ relationship since he has arranged a more politically and financially advantageous marriage for Rodolfo to the Duchess Federica. After a confrontation at Millers’ home with Luisa’s father and his defiant son, the Count has the Millers imprisoned. To further thwart the young lovers he engages his odious henchman—the aptly named Wurm, who has his own lustful designs on Luisa—to blackmail Luisa into writing a false letter to Rodolfo saying that she is really in love with Wurm. Hilarity does not ensue and the furious Rodolfo is driven half-mad, leading to the opera’s tragic denouement.

Premiered in 1849, the first of Verdi’s middle-period works doesn’t provide a wealth of indelible melody apart from Rodolfo’s Act II aria. Still, in its three tight acts, there are inspired moments for all five principals, a terrific ensemble to close Act I and a striking unaccompanied quartet. The opera rises to true greatness—musically if not dramatically—in the closing scene’s two duets and trio, where one can glimpse the tragic heights of La Traviata, Rigoletto and Il Trovatore on the horizon.

More broadly, even in this melodramatic tale one does get a sense of Verdi expanding and deepening the genre. Except for Wurm, all of the principal characters are more rounded and complex than in his previous works. Luisa is the first of Verdi’s great female heroines, a role that goes in just over two hours from innocent ingenue to grandly ennobled tragic figure.

The principal problem with Lyric’s new Luisa Miller is a vocally wanting Luisa. Krassimira Stoyanova is an acclaimed artist, a dramatic soprano renown for Verdi roles. But unfortunately Luisa is a role that seems wrong both vocally and dramatically for this veteran singer, who sounded sadly past her prime opening night.

That Stoyanova doesn’t visually convey a youthful girl one can live with. Less acceptable is the Bulgarian soprano’s failing to perform the essence of the role vocally in Luisa’s most glittering music.

The opening cavatina “Lo vidi e ‘l primo palpito” reflects Luisa’s bright vivacity but Stoyanova sloughed over the leaping trills and staccatos or omitted them entirely. And so it went throughout the performance with the soprano avoiding the most complex coloratura and essential high notes as well as bringing little vocal elan to her safety-first cadenzas. Dramatically, she was equally low-energy, relying on old-fashioned acting and a generic characterization with little urgency or passion.

Stoyanova finished strong with the tragic finale seeming to spark greater dramatic involvement, and the singer showed some of her lovely luminous tone in the closing duets with her father and Rodolfo. But this was too little too late. Coming after her equally disappointing showing in the June concert performances of Aida with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, it’s hard not to feel that the 57-year-old singer’s best career days are behind her.

Jospeh Calleja is one of our finest lyric-dramatic tenors and it was good to have him back as Rodolfo. Apart from a scary moment in the finale of Act I when his voice cracked jarringly on a high note, the Maltese tenor largely provided the requisite vocal juice and dramatic fervor. The role’s showpiece aria provided the finest moment of the evening, with Calleja delivering a gorgeous rendition of “Quando le sere al placido” with vibrant tone, deep expression, and dynamic nuance. So terrific was that aria it made one cut Calleja slack for his generalized acting and fitfully throaty undertone. The tenor also seemed more cautious with top notes after that crash and burn in Act 1, holding back in high-flying passages.

Soloman Howard (Wurm) and Quinn Kelsey (Miller) in Luisa Miller. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Quinn Kelsey brought a working-class dignity to Miller, the poor but honest retired soldier whose only concern is the happiness of his daughter Luisa. Sadly, Kelsey’s acting is still humdrum and his voice remains something of a trial—dry of tone, colorless and even raw at times. I realize we’re not living in an era of bounteous plenty for Verdi baritones but is Kelsey the only singer on the planet Lyric can field for its Verdi productions?

As Count Walter, bass Christian van Horn sang with customary strength and sonority and etched a more well-rounded character than most of the cast (though even this fine actor couldn’t make the Count’s abrupt change of heart believable).

As the villainous Wurm, Soloman Howard made an impressive company debut, cutting a rather heroic figure for the Count’s weaselly vassal. Howard’s acting proved a bit one-dimensional even for this two-dimensional bad guy, not conveying much of Wurm’s evil nature or slightly comic side. Vocally,  however Howard was a striking success, displayed a rich and burnished high bass, evenly produced and with true nobility of tone.

Alisa Kolosova provided an admirable turn as Luisa’s rival the high-born Federica, singing with a refined, flexible mezzo and acting credibly.

First-year Ryan Opera Center mezzo Kathleen Felty made an assured company debut as Luisa’s sympathetic friend Laura. The Lyric Opera Chorus was one of this show’s more consistent elements, Michael Black’s ensemble singing with corporate strength and polish even when the staging didn’t do them any favors.

The evening’s mixed array of vocalism wasn’t aided by this new production, cast in the company’s favored vein of cost-effective minimalism. 

Michael Yeargan’s spartan unit set is a curved wall unit set with rising panels and a pastoral scene on the surface reflecting the German rural milieu. In a visually jarring contrast there is a large frame on which changing outdoor scenes appear, hanging somewhat precariously on a crane that sticks out from the right wall to no discernible visual or dramatic purpose. 

Francesca Zambello’s miss-and hit direction took the opera’s narrative at face value but provided little illumination, visually or dramatically. Too little time was spent exploring characters and motivation and too much time on distracting irrelevancies—like Wurm hovering over the sleeping Luisa’s bed and the lovers playing games with cutesy hyperactive children in the opening scene.

The director’s attempts to inject some visual variety into the chintzy staging showed little originality, with the silhouetted backlit upper-class toffs appearing to have stepped out from the Ascot Scene in My Fair Lady. Similarly, having Federica enter on an equestrian statue with the chorus parading about as snooty nose-in-the air stiffs shows Zambello’s dubious tendency to reduce characters to cardboard archetypes.

Mark McCullough’s clinical lighting had all the subtlety of an operating room, thought he turned the high beams down for more varied shading in the latter acts.

Despite all the hype of recent weeks, Enrique Mazzola’s conducting proved the largest disappointment of the evening. Unlike the previous fizzing vitality he exhibited here in two bel canto operas, Mazzola’s direction was big on grandly sweeping gestures but woefully light in Verdian thrust and drama. Everything was clean, efficient and well balanced with reasonable tempos but the music-making was fatally lacking in power and intensity with too many of the opera’s big dramatic moments going off the boil. Red glasses do not a music director make. 

Luisa Miller runs through October 31. lyricopera.org 

Posted in Performances

4 Responses to “Uneven singing, lack of dramatic fire make for low-voltage Verdi in Lyric’s “Luisa Miller””

  1. Posted Oct 13, 2019 at 4:48 pm by Claude Weil

    Having heard L.M. twice before, it did not hold any surprises. I felt more positive about this performance than the previous ones even though, except for Luisa, few of the singers show any great emotion. In general I found the singing fine. Probably most of the audience would not have been aware of such nuances as you write about and would have been satisfied.

    The staging was static and detracted from the performance. The brightly lit exit was intrusive and left the singers with little more to do than parade out. Miller reappeared dressed exactly as he had been before. Apparently prison was no particular ordeal either emotionally or sartorially. Probably there was a good bridge game going on backstage.

  2. Posted Oct 14, 2019 at 3:01 pm by Philip Kraus

    Always appreciate the detail in your reviews. In many respects it is the antithesis of Howard Reich’s review in the Tribune. I’ve retired to Washington State and did not see or hear the performance, but I would trust your ears and eyes far more than anyone hired to write in the Chicago daily papers. Seems a shame that a young lyric coloratura with some heft couldn’t be engaged. Surely, there are a multitude of fine sopranos out there. Anna Moffo on the old RCA recording sounded positively ravishing. I also agree that Mr. Kelsey has been over exposed at Lyric. Perhaps a lazy artistic administrator.

  3. Posted Oct 16, 2019 at 11:01 pm by Alan Goldberg

    I generally find myself in agreement more often with your reviews than those in the daily papers, so having seen tonight’s second performance of the run, which was superb, I can only assume things improved greatly since Saturday.

    Mazzola conducted a taut, propulsive performance which never hung fire in the way described in this review. The orchestra sounded superb, and the attention to Verdian detail was Muti-like. All of the male voices, including Quinn Kelsey, were outstanding, and Solomon Howard is indeed a find. Calleja, notwithstanding a pre-performance announcement that he had a cold, was thrilling. And Stoyanova was touching and effective, if not as outstanding as her fellow cast members.

    But it is Mazzola’s conducting that made the greatest impression, and if his musical leadership results in performances of this stature, perhaps Lyric’s previous reputation as “La Scala West” will be restored.

  4. Posted Oct 31, 2019 at 7:47 pm by Janien Balgemann

    There were some scintillating vocal moments but the energy felt somewhat low. There was more than one audience member sitting around me sound asleep.

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