Lyric Opera is launching a multiyear exploration of the early works of Giuseppe Verdi with its current production of the 1849 melodrama Luisa Miller. “Early Verdi” is a snappy title for this endeavor, and Verdi was writing beautiful music before his more familiar hits like La Traviata and Aida, but the overall project suggests a seminar in the weeds of opera history when what we (and the art form) desperately need is opera of and for our time. We await our own Verdi.
That said, this is a good production, beautifully sung and played, and a chance to see Enrique Mazzola, Lyric’s animated new music director designate, in action in the pit. (Yes, he’s adorable.) But it’s a good production of a klunky drama. The plot is the same tired story we saw play out in the season opener, The Barber of Seville—without the happy ending. A lovely young woman (Luisa) falls in love with a mystery man who turns out to be a noble in disguise. Her father opposes this relationship, which he correctly suspects to be dangerous, though for the wrong reasons. There’s an unscrupulous competitor for her hand, conveniently named Wurm, and the action turns on a letter. It all plods along for three acts, then ends abruptly, and not well.
The music is so lush—one brief, surprising vocal glitch on opening night notwithstanding—it’s not hard to overlook these issues with the plot (libretto by Salvadore Cammarano, based on a play by Friedrich von Schiller), and some annoyingly fussy first-act staging by director Francesca Zambello. Sets by Michael Yeargan, in this production owned by the San Francisco Opera, employ dramatic artifice (including landscape art on a huge, sliding canvas) in a minimalist context. With the exception of one obtrusive equine statue, it worked for me.
Casting is giddily age blind, even for opera. Both Luisa (soprano Krassimira Stoyanova) and her true love, Rodolfo (tenor Joseph Calleja), look to be—however miraculously—at least as old as their fathers ( baritone Quinn Kelsey, a Lyric favorite, and bass-baritone Christian Van Horn). And why not? They all sound fabulous, as does mighty bass Soloman Howard, making his first Lyric appearance as the slimy Wurm, and mezzo-soprano Alisa Kolosova as the duchess Rodolfo’s father wants him to marry. Ryan Opera Center member Kathleen Felty aces her Lyric debut in a supporting role, and the dependably excellent Lyric Opera Chorus is on hand as peasants, nobles, and soldiers. v