By Bryson David Hoff
The announcement earlier this year that Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Music Director Sir Andrew Davis would be leaving at the end of next season represented a massive sea change for the organization. It also threw an unintentional spotlight on the second production of the current season, Verdi’s seldom performed early work Luisa Miller, as its conductor and major advocate in the press for the relatively obscure opera is Enrique Mazzola, the man who will be taking Davis’s as the new music director after next season. Mazzola’s first Lyric production after the announcement proves a beautiful, if unpolished, evening of music.
The romantic tragedy centers around a love triangle: Luisa (soprano Krassimira Stoyanova), the humble daughter of a miller (baritone Quinn Kelsey), has fallen in love Carlo (tenor Joseph Calleja), who is the alter-ego of Rodolfo, the son of the local count. This draws the ire of Wurm (bass Soloman Howard), the unfortunately named steward to the count, who had been engaged to Luisa. Further complicating things is Rodolfo’s impending arranged marriage to Duchess Federica (mezzo-soprano Alisa Kolosova), which kicks off a series of betrayals and impulsive decisions that spirals towards a tragic conclusion.
The plot is a little ridiculous. It’s a petty criticism for an opera that has been around for over a century-and-a-half, but it bears saying considering that this particular piece is likely an unknown quantity for most potential audiences. The draw, as it so often is with opera from this period, is the music, full stop.
The cast comports themselves well, for the most part, though it should be noted that some at opening seemed to be in better voice than others. Lyric mainstay Kelsey is very much in his element and is by far the standout of the cast, both in his singing and his acting. Verdi very much plays into the “park and bark” stereotype of opera and presents a challenge to the more realist impulses of contemporary staging techniques. Kelsey manages to balance these competing priorities better than most.
Perhaps the strangest element of the production is the set design, realized as a geometric backdrop painted with the misty pine forests of the opera’s Tyrolean setting that periodically opens to create doors and archways, coupled with a panel on a large exposed track that precariously hangs above the stage. While it does a good job of conveying the unease that pervades the piece, it is also very strangely sterile for a story that is so concerned with the messy volatility of the human heart.
In short, while Luisa Miller is by no means a bad production, it’s likely to be one of the more opaque things on the Lyric stage this season. Opera fanatics should probably not pass up the chance to see a rarely performed Verdi, however for everyone else it is likely to come down to personal taste whether this is their personal brand of weird.
The Lyric Opera of Chicago presents “Luisa Miller” through October 31 at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Upper Wacker Drive, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.