Berkeley Chamber Opera’s Stunning LUISA MILLER by Verdi

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Sunday November 19, 2017 - 12:09:00 PM

Luisa Miller is often cited as the opera that inaugurated Giuseppe Verdi’s “second period.” After churning out fourteen operas during his self-styled “prison years,” Verdi definitely struck new ground in composing Luisa Miller. Adapted from Friedrich Schiller’s play Kabale und Liebe, with a libretto by Salvatore Cammarano, Luisa Miller offered Verdi the opportunity to hold in check his earlier, ‘grandiose’ manner and to portray instead the lives and emotions of ordinary people.

Following their hugely successful productions of Vincenzo Bellini’s I Capuleti ed I Montecchi and Gian-Carlo Menotti’s The Consul, Berkeley Chamber Opera presented two performances of Verdi’s Luisa Miller, Sunday, November 12, and Saturday, November 18. Both performances were at Berkeley’s Hillside Club. At the November 18 performance I attended, I was struck by the high quality of singing by each and every cast member. Berkeley Chamber Opera’s founder, soprano Eliza O’Malley, sang the role of Luisa, and never has her superb vocalism been on better display than in this portrayal of an innocent Tyrolean country girl who, in Act I, falls in love with a young man who sweetly returns her love. In her Act II aria, “Tu, puniscimi, o Signore,” sung under great duress when forced to betray Rodolfo(initially known to her as Carlo) in order to save the life of her father, Eliza O’Malley’s village maiden suddenly takes on the grandeur of a prima donna. In the role of Rodolfo, tenor Salvatore Atti was nothing short of a revelation. A recent transplant to the Bay Area from Boston, where he graduated from the Boston Conservatory of Music with a Master’s degree in opera performance, Atti possesses a robust, ringing tenor. Atti’s Act II aria “Quando le sere al placido” was the vocal highlight of this Luisa Miller. This, of course, is one of Verdi’s finest tenor arias, and it is richly scored, with chromatically shifting chords in the strings and a cello introduction plus a rippling clarinet in the accompaniment. Salvatore Atti invested this bitter lament with great intensity over the apparent betrayal by Rodolfo’s beloved Luisa. 

In the role of Miller, Luisa’s father, was baritone Geoffrey Di Giorgio, a stocky barrel of a man equipped with a stentorian voice that rang out loud and clear. In his portrayal of Miller, an old soldier with a soft spot for his daughter, Di Giorgio was ever watchful over his daughter’s happiness. His aria “Sacra la scelta” was an invocation of Miller’s honor as a former soldier, and it was robustly delivered by Di Giorgio. Likewise, Di Giorgio’s singing in Miller’s duet with his daughter Luisa, in which he dissuades Luisa from suicide, was immensely tender, and as Luisa Eliza O’Malley responded to her father’s tenderness with love and tenderness of her own. 

The role of Count Walter, Rodolfo’s father, was admirably sung by bass Paul Thompson, who studied voice at SF Conservatory of Music. Though Count Walter has his son Rodolfo's best interests at heart, he is extremely domineering and expects, indeed, demands that his son comply with his father’s wishes, especially when it comes to marriage. Walter is unalterably opposed to his son’s desire to wed Luisa, and Walter connives a plot with Wurm to convince Rodolfo that Luisa has betrayed him. For dynastic reasons, Walter wants his son to marry Federica, the Duchess of Ostheim, who spent her childhood in company with the boy Rodolfo at Walter’s castle. In the role of Federica, mezzo-soprano Liliane Cromer was excellent, though she has only one big scene, in Act I, Scene 2, in which to display her gorgeous voice. As Wurm, the unabashed villain of the piece, bass J.T. Williams was suitably sinister, singing with a nasal suavity that fit his character to a T. Finally, mezzo-soprano Jessica Winn was winsome as Laura, Luisa’s best friend and confidante. 

The plot of Luisa Miller is full of convoluted intrigue, and many of its scenes reek of melodrama. The plight of innocent lovers caught in the web of parental opposition to their love is explored from many angles. When Count Walter imprisons Luisa’s father for alleged treason, Wurm offers Luisa a way to save her father from execution. But the price is exorbitant. He instructs Luisa to write a letter addressed to himself in which she must state that her love for Rodolfo was only feigned and that her true love is Wurm. Of course, Wurm insidiously makes sure this letter falls into Rodolfo’s hands. When he reads this letter, Rodolfo bursts into the angry recitative, “Tutto è mensogna, tradimento, inganno!” (“All is lies, betrayals, and trickery!”) Then Rodolfo reflects on his earlier moments of happiness with Luisa in the aforementioned aria, “Quando le sere al placido.” In the light of Luisa’s letter of apparent betrayal, these reflections are filled with bitterness for Rodolfo “Ah, mi tradia!” (“Ah, she betrayed me!”) Rodolfo cries out at the close of this great aria. 

In the final Act, Rodolfo confronts Luisa over the letter, asking her if she did indeed write this letter. At first, Luisa hesitates. When she sadly replies “yes,” Rodolfo drinks a draught of poison and offers the cup to Luisa, who, unknowingly, drinks the poison. Then, with both of the lovers on the brink of death, the truth comes out. Dying, Rodolfo uses his stiletto to stab Wurm to death, as Count Walter and old Miller rush in to find their children dying. 

Throughout Luisa Miller, the ten-piece chamber orchestra was admirably conducted by Bay Area veteran Jonathan Khuner, who prepared the orchestral reduction. The staging by Ellen St. Thomas was effective in spite of having only minimal sets and props to work with. One nice touch was the video footage screened during the opera’s lovely overture, one of Verdi’s finest. The video images of mountain scenery, babbling brooks, and romantic moments shared in nature by Rodolfo and Luisa, culminating in a kiss, effectively set the stage for the melodrama that ensued. Congratulations are in order to Berkeley Chamber Opera for mounting such a successful and engaging production of Verdi’s Luisa Miller.