Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

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Review: A Second Look at “Luisa Miller” at the San Francisco Opera – September 27, 2015

September 28th, 2015

My review of the San Francisco Opera 2015-16 season opener  [Review: Michael Fabiano’s Star Ascends in Verdi’s “Luisa Miller” – San Francisco Opera, September 11, 2015] praised the lead tenor, entire cast, conductor, orchestra and stage direction.

One follows, when one can, the great operatic voices singing at their prime in live performance, so I made sure to be in San Francisco for Michael Fabiano’s final performance as Verdi’s Rodolfo which fell on the Sunday matinee series for which I have been a long-time subscriber.

It also gave me an opportunity to reconfirm my opinion of the musical and dramatic performances from a different point in the War Memorial Opera House.

[Below: Michael Fabiano as Rodolfo; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


I had referred previously to Verdi’s “Luisa Miller” as “unabashedly a tenor’s opera” (only Luciano Pavarotti, Marcello Giordani and Fabiano have sung the role of Rodolfo at the San Francisco Opera)

Rodolfo sings the opera’s most famous aria and dominates the opera’s moments of highest drama, especially in the torrid second and third acts.

Fabiano’s vocal instrument has the beauty of the lyric tenor voice and enough heft to cause (I suspect) some opera managements to hope to coax him into heavier spinto roles. As a tenor in his early 30s, his voice is perfectly tuned to the repertory of Donizetti and “early” Verdi and the lyric roles of mid-19th century French opera.

Although much of this repertory, like “Luisa Miller”, is unfamiliar to the casual operagoer, I believe there is a strong argument for mounting works from the 1830s and 1840s that are perfect for his vocal type.

The Other Cast Members

The cast included soprano Leah Crocetto in the title role, whose gleaming top of her range makes this former San Francisco Opera Adler Fellow a company favorite.

[Below: Miller (Vitaliy Bilyy, standing), released from prison where he had been tortured, is shocked to learn of the decision to end her life by his daughter Luisa (Leah Crocetto, sitting on bed); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


I had previously expressed reservations at casting the young Ukrainian baritone Vitaliy Bilyy as Miller, but in this performance his attractive lyric voice resonated in the War Memorial Opera House. One can foresee him successfully taking on the big, mature Verdi baritone roles, like Miller, as his career progresses.

The seconda donna in “Luisa Miller” is the role of Luisa’s rival Federica, the noble heiress of a late husband’s fortune and title.

Sung by Russian soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk, in her San Francisco Opera debut, Semenchuk made a vivid impression in a basically sympathetic part, with an attractive voice through her mezzo range, with both power and security in her lower register.

[Below: Ekaterina Semenchuk as Federica; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Italian-born American basso Andrea Silvestrelli, arguably the most experienced member of the cast, was a formidable Wurm. In Francesca Zambello’s staging, he has much to do in the early scenes not envisioned by Verdi or by Salvatore Cammarano (the opera’s librettist). Zambello’s dramatic instincts proved correct. By giving greater emphasis to Wurm’s romantic pursuit of Luisa, character motivations were clarified.

Daniel Sumegi, whose performances as a Wagnerian bass-baritone are familiar to West Coast audiences, has not sung a big Italian role at the San Francisco Opera’s War Memorial Opera House previously. A late addition to the cast, he seemed in this seventh performance to tire, with evidence of vocal discomfort, towards the end of his early aria, but recovered for the role’s long haul.

Schiller, Cammarano, Verdi and Zambello

“Luisa Miller” is based on the play Kabale und Liebe by the German playwright Friedrich Schiller. One should not underestimate the contribution that Schiller made t0 the revolution in thought and the accompanying revolutions in art, music, literature and drama that we associate with the Romantic Era of the early 19th Century.

I argue that the character and role of Verdi’s Rodolfo is a quintessential example of Schiller’s influence on Italian opera.

The character of Rodolfo, distilled from Schiller’s work Kabale, seethes with the anger that Schiller felt, having been imprisoned for two weeks by the absolutist sovereign, Carl Eugen, Duke of Württemberg (who earlier had been Schiller’s patron), and was forbidden to write any other plays. Schiller’s crime: being absent from his army post to attend the premiere of his play The Robbers in another principality.

One can easily see the autobiographical significance in the plot in which the Duke translates into the opera’s Count Walter and Schiller, the count’s son, Rodolfo. And one sees the ferocity in which Rodolfo/Schiller condemns the old order with its arbitrariness and its deceits.

Schiller wrote Kabale in the middle of the decade that ended with the French Revolution, and its sentiments are as revolutionary as are those of the contemporary work, Beaumarchais’ Le Mariage de Figaro.

[Below: Count Walter (Daniel Sumegi, right) is determined to do anything to force his son Rodolfo (Michael Fabiano, left) to take part in his dynastic plans for his family’s future; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


A generation or so after Schiller’s death in 1805, a revolution of a different sort transformed Italian opera – the idea of the roles of passionate male youths being written for lyric tenors, rather than castrati or mezzo-sopranos cast in musico roles.

Concurrent with this revolution was the popularization of new styles of tenor singing. The tenor chest tones and belted high C’s are innovations that took Italian opera by storm.

Heroes of Schiller’s works and the post-Revolutionary poets that came after Schiller, like Lord Byron, were transformed into operatic tenor roles. The highly dramatic music sung by the new class of tenors was perfected by Gaetano Donizetti and his protege, 14 years his junior, Giuseppe Verdi.

The plot of Kabale und Liebe was substantially revised by Verdi and his conservative Italian librettist Salvatore Cammarano, preparing a revolutionary work for the conservative ruling dynasty of Naples, just after the Revolutions of 1848 swept Europe and frightened its “Old Guard”.

Cammarano’s plot revisions created plausible backstories for Rodolfo and Federica and for Wurm and Miller. These changes made for tighter, more dramatically cohesive operatic drama.

Zambello’s staging, which added nuances to the character relationships, and an occasional explanatory silhouetted pantomime, resulted in a theatrically credible performance.

[Below: Luisa (Leah Crocetto center, on bed), is surrounded by village women; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Nicola Luisotti and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra

On a personal note, I had praised Maestro Luisotti’s energetic conducting, but, since my subscription seat to the San Francisco Opera is at the left hand of the conductor’s podium, I had wondered what would happen if the baton left his hand as he swung his arm around. 

At this September 27th performance, during the final act duet between Crocetto’s Luisa and Bilyy’s Miller I got my answer. His baton landed in my lap, then dropped onto the floor. I picked it up, set it on the railing between my seat and the conductor’s podium. Without a pause in the performance, Maestro Luisotti picked the baton up off the railing and continued without any loss of concentration, briefly signalling thanks with a gesture.

At performance end, he gave me the baton before wending his way up to the stage, to share in the thunderous ovation that the cast, particularly Fabiano and Crocetto, received from the San Francisco Opera audience. The baton is one made for him by his father and is embossed with the name “Luisotti”.

[Below: the baton used by Maestro Nicola Luisotti in the September 27, 2015 performance of Verdi’s “Luisa Miller”; photograph courtesy of Nancy L. Burnett.]


The baton was a memento of a stellar performance by the San Francisco Opera Orchestra.

In its half century of existence as an institutional part of the San Francisco Opera (originally the San Francisco Opera orchestra members were mostly comprised of San Francisco Symphony players) it has evolved into one of the world’s greatest opera orchestras.

The sweeping “Luisa Miller” overture, the first of the truly great Verdi overtures, was played with a precision and style that exceeded even its superb opening night performance.


All performances of “Luisa Miller” for the season have been completed, but Michael Fabiano will return (with Andrea Silvestrelli as a co-star) in June in yet another Verdi role based on a Schiller play – the title role of “Don Carlos”. No operagoer with the opportunity to do so should pass up the opportunity of obtaining a ticket.

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