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Powerfully sung ‘Luisa Miller’ offers hints of what’s to come

The man who will lead Lyric smartly conducts the opera that would lead Verdi toward greatness.

Krassimira Stoyanova (center) sings the title role of “Luisa Miller” at the Lyric Opera House.
© Todd Rosenberg Photography

It was a night of transition at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. The Spanish-born Italian conductor Enrique Mazzola, who has just become the Lyric’s music director-designate — he with the candy-red glasses and a string of achievements in New York, Berlin and Paris — led a high-energy performance of Verdi’s “Luisa Miller” to a welcoming audience.

The first sounds of the night were thus of far more than usual interest, because the overture wasn’t just setting the tone for another of opera’s star-crossed romances. It afforded the chance to take a closer look at the man who will become the third music director in Lyric’s 65-year history. From the outset, Mazzola showed wit and smarts, keying on fast tempos not just for speed’s sake, but to encourage the orchestra’s sparkle before tacking easily into wisps of tender, fragile, lyric territory.

Coincidentally, “Luisa Miller” was the beginning of a new era for its composer Giuseppe Verdi, who penned this little-known show at 36 with his most famous works “Rigoletto,” “Il Trovatore” and “La Traviata” just ahead.

But the opera is rarely done, and the Francesca Zambello production, first seen at the San Francisco Opera in 2000, is a mixed bag of bold design by designer Michael Yeargan —some of it quite wonderful — and resultant staging that somewhat confuses the eye. When one is watching the shadows on the wall at the expense of the singers making the shadows, something is surely awry. Luckily the tale is a familiar one in many ways, with a Romeo and Juliet feel, notwithstanding different particulars: The plot of “Luisa Miller” is based on a play called “Intrigue and Love” (Kabale und Liebe) by Germany’s Shakespeare, Friedrich Schiller.

It goes like this: Luisa is the only daughter of a successful commoner, the village miller. She’s in love with a young man she believes to be “Carlo,” but he’s really Rodolfo, and more to the point, nobility, the son of a count, and rumored to be soon marrying a noblewoman. Luisa’s father is alarmed for his daughter’s reputation, and hugely doubtful for her happiness. Meanwhile Rodolfo’s father is flat-out furious that his son won’t make a more lucrative match. There’s also a genuine bad guy in the bunch, a Iago-like character aptly named Wurm, who lusts after Luisa and sees mucking things up on command as a career path.

As is often the case with opera productions, the young lovers Luisa and Rodolfo were not played by young singers, but by artists of considerable experience. Bulgarian soprano Krassimira Stoyanova and Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja can deliver both the floridity and intensity of difficult musical passages while participating fully in the passionate pendulum swings of love sought, betrayed and consummated only in death. If these two didn’t particularly look their parts, their tragedy was powerfully etched, and deeply personal, and technically quite impressive.

It was good to hear Stoyanova sounding so well in the coloratura filigree at the opera’s outset, as Luisa announces to no one so much as herself the wonder of her new-found feelings. Last time she was in Chicago, she sang the role of Verdi’s Aida, another tragic heroine, in concert performances with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. She was bedeviled then by a vocal infection but soldiered on. This time, the color of her voice in the death scene was hauntingly transcendent.

Enrique Mazzola conducts “Luisa Miller” at the Lyric Opera House.
© Todd Rosenberg Photography

In Rodolfo’s signature aria, “Quando le sere al placido,” Calleja took drama to the edge. It’s an abrupt mix of most tender feelings for Luisa with the agony of his mistaken belief in her betrayal. American baritone Quinn Kelsey was superb as the loving, deeply concerned and tragically conflicted father of Luisa, whose daughter will perish in the escalating turmoil.

Russian mezzo-soprano Alisa Kolosova, as the duchess who fully expects to marry Rodolfo, enjoyed the Entrance of Entrances, high on the statue of a horse, dressed in royal velvet, and surrounded by a retinue of similarly dressed minions. She also proved to be a fine actress with a luscious voice who played the affronted intended to the hilt. Bass Soloman Howard, in his Lyric debut as the nasty Wurm, is surely on the rise. He’ll be back for more meddling, later in the season, as Fafner in Wagner’s Ring Cycle.

As “Luisa Miller” is little known, it was painful to observe people in the audience struggling to read the synopsis and other explanatory text in the program book. Printed in a small, thin, grayish font on shiny paper, the director’s and dramaturg’s essays, and the lists of donors’ names and opera personnel were hard to read in the auditorium’s half-light.

Nancy Malitz is a Chicago freelance writer.