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Luisa Miller Returns to Open San Francisco Season

San Francisco
War Memorial Opera House
09/09/2000 -  9, 13, 17, 19, 22 and 28 September and 1 October, 2000
Giuseppe Verdi: Luisa Miller
Patricia Racette (Luisa Miller), Marcello Giordani (Rudolfo), Evgenij Dmitriev (Miller), Francesco Ellero d'Artegna (Count Walter), Gidon Saks (Wurm), Elena Zaremba (Federica), Katia Escalera (Laura), Richard Walker (A soldier)
San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Donald Runnicles (Conductor)
Francesca Zambello (Stage Director)

For the first time in over a quarter of a century and for only the second time in the history of the company, the San Francisco Opera staged Verdi's Luisa Miller. But the company made up for the neglect this time with a new production staged by Francesca Zambello with sets by Michael Yeargan and costumes by Dunya Ramicova.
Verdi's opera about the destruction of an innocent girl's love for the son of the local count through the machinations of a sinister rival is set against a background of court intrigue and social class conflicts. But for Verdi, the focus of the opera is on Luisa and her relationship with her father, who objects to her noble suitor but who has given her the right to choose the man she will marry.
Zambello has strong views of Verdi's heroine, the situation in which she finds herself through no fault of her own and the social class structure which allows such situations to develop. Her staging was full of telling details and strong visual imagery that enhanced the melodramatic plot and gave it a human, emotional depth.
For example, when the first act opens, we see Luisa awakening to the loving strains of the chorus greeting her on her birthday day. Still in bed, she receives bouquets of flowers from the village children. The whole scene is wrapped in innocent joy and refreshing sweetness. Then in the first scene of the second act, Wurm entraps Luisa, forcing her to declare her love for the count's son false and to give her self up to the villain to save her father. Once again, Luisa is on her bed, but this time it has become a potent symbol of innocence destroyed. The visual imagery shows the contrasting situations in sharp relief, making the emotional intensity of the scene palpable.
Not all of Zambello's ideas work as well, but overall her staging served the drama well and matched the power of Verdi's score making a strong case for Luisa Miller.
Yeargan's set served this end as well, allowing a swift transition between scenes so as to maintain the momentum of the drama. The stark design utilized what appeared to be a cyclorama painted with a vaguely alpine scene but which in reality was thirty two separate panels, eight columns of four panels, which were shifted to create different vertical and horizontal openings in the curved wall. A large panel suspended on a beam projected over and above the stage which rotated and moved forward and back, a large equestrian statue (first used as an entrance for Federica) and a few isolated set pieces completed the visual elements of the set.
Luisa Miller is a transitional work in the Verdi canon. While a fair amount of it strongly foreshadows his mature works, there are also clear ties to the past with Donizettian influence especially prominent in the opening scene. As such the heroine is required to sing both heavy lyrical stretches of music and lighter, coloratura passages. Soprano Patricia Racette sounded well able to handle the varying vocal demands of the role and made for a touching, sympathetic Luisa. Her Luisa was clearly in sync with Zambello's concept of the character and Racette appeared comfortable and confident with the varying aspects of her character.
Marcello Giordani, as Rudolfo, was in fine voice with plenty of ping in the top and a smooth legato command in phrasing and shaping the melodic line. Previously heard here in lighter roles, Rudolfo gave Giordani the opportunity to show his developing skills both as an actor and singer. His stage presence continues to show more ease and confidence and it is reflected in his vocal freedom. Only the infrequent fioratura the role requires eluded his mastery and this was a minor blemish on an otherwise accomplished and rewarding performance.
On the other hand, baritone Evgenij Dmitriev was miscast as Miller, the heroine's father. His light baritone had neither the power nor the range to handle the role, the bottom being inaudible and the middle sounding pushed. To be fair, Dmitriev was a late addition to the cast, which may have contributed to his lack of success. Paolo Gavanelli was originally slated for the role but had to back out shortly before the production went into rehearsals. But even so, there is little that sounds like a nascent Verdi baritone based on the evidence provided in this, his first performances with the company.
Francesco Ellero d'Artegna went a good deal futher toward fulfilling Verdi's requirements as Count Walter, the father of Rudolfo and one of the two villians in Luisa Miller. Ellero d'Artegna's Count was an elderly man, stiff of joint relying on two sturdy crutches for mobility. But rather than making him appear more vulnerable because of the weakness, he used it to create a menacing, powerful man, his stiffness reflecting the inflexible and ruthless determination that brought him to power and which ultimately destroys those around him. Ellero d'Artegna's Italianate bass may lack some of the vocal heft and depth ideal for this role, but his understanding of the musical sweep and Verdian phrasing more than compensated.
As the other villian of the opera, Gidon Saks' Wurm combined a cold, menacing presence with solid, if monochromatic, singing. What Saks' failed to convey of Wurm's evil nature vocally, he managed to do so visually. Using his imposing height and taking full advantage of Zambello's dramatic staging, Saks created a convincingly threatening and heartless henchman.
The role of Federica provides the right singer with the chance to create a memorable moment in her little time on stage. And Russian mezzo Elena Zaremba made the most of those moments, singing with plush, legato tone and elegant phrasing, while cutting a striking, noble presence on stage.
Central to the success of this Luisa Miller was Donald Runnicles' presence in the pit. Leading a performance that looked forward more to the dramatic intensity of the later Verdi works than back to the Donizettian influence of early Verdi, this pivotal work in the Verdi canon sprang to vital, vibrant life with a tensely dramatic reading of the overture and a sure sense of pacing, tempi relationships and dynamic balance. Runnicles' ability to balance the needs of an individual singer with the demands of the dramatic and musical whole make his one of today's outstanding opera conductors. And a particularly valuable asset to the company.
To be fair, an entire review should be devoted to the San Francisco Opera's contribution in Luisa Miller. The chameleon like abilities of every member of the chorus, to shift back and forth from hearty peasant to elegant courtier, all the while preserving a full, blended sound, a committed dramatic involvement, and more than one quick costume change make their contribution just as valued and remarkable as that of the principals.
With this Luisa Miller, the opera season started on a promising note with a theatrically valid production and dramatically insightful staging.

Kelly Snyder



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