Washington Opera makes 'forgotten' Verdi memorable

November 15, 1995|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

WASHINGTON -- Revivals of his hitherto obscure operas in recent years makes one doubt the existence of "minor" Verdi operas. "Luisa Miller" is not exactly obscure Verdi, but even the Washington Opera's somewhat flawed current production makes the opera seem very major indeed.

The composer called "Luisa Miller," the 14th opera in the first 10 years of his career, a "tragic melodrama." He was not exaggerating: several murders, including what is in effect a double suicide; political and sexual intrigue; betrayals of sons by fathers and lovers by their beloveds; sadistic pleasures; and much, much more.

But despite what seems a sure-fire -- if complicated -- plot, "Luisa Miller" cannot be easy to put on. It requires six major singers in complex roles.

Four of those singers in this production -- on this past Sunday afternoon, at least -- were less than perfectly suited for their roles: soprano Veronica Villarroel in the title role; tenor Lando Bartolini as her lover, Rodolfo; bass Gabor Andrasy as Count Walter, Rodolfo's father; and mezzo Jane Gilbert as Federica.

In the end, it didn't matter. These four singers were never less than sufficient, but the other two -- baritone Haijing Fu as Luisa's father and bass Kevin Langan as the evil Wurm -- were terrific. Conductor Richard Buckley's leadership of the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra and Chorus was secure and confident.

Villarroel is a remarkable soprano in many ways: She is a good actress and a musicianly singer. But hefty parts such as Luisa are less flattering to her than lighter ones such as Violetta.

On Sunday, she seemed to be singing with a constricted throat. She has an almost velvety lower register and she can float lovely pianissimos at the top, but when she sings out, her voice has a tendency to turn strident. But she's a passionate singer who is able to give an impassioned reading of Luisa's second-act aria, "Tu puniscimi," and who can make the final duet and trio of Act III touching.

She was well-matched to her Rodolfo, Lando Bartolini. Bartolini has, as one of my waggish friends says, "a black belt in tenor." This young man, who is already performing "Otello," has a huge voice that he uses with unrelenting intensity. Unfortunately, his dynamics are restricted to one level (loud) and one suspects that he does not know the meaning of nuance. But anyone who can sing "Quando le sere al placido" so powerfully deserves respect.

The best singing of the afternoon came from baritone Haijing Fu as Miller. This is a young man with what one can only presume is an unlimited future. The voice is warm, pliant, full-bodied on loud climactic notes, yet capable of a fine-grained pianissimo such as that at the end of the Act III duet with Luisa. Best of all, this singer inhabits a role. Miller's pride and love for Luisa were unmistakable, and his anguish in Act III all too palpable.

Not far behind Fu's Miller was the Wurm of bass Kevin Langan. Why this veteran singer isn't better-known is a mystery. His presence -- physically as well as vocally -- is imposing. He knows how to snarl and sneer musically, and his big, dark and flexible voice was unfailing in pitch.

Gabor Andrasy's Count Walter did have problems with pitch and Jane Gilbert's attractive-looking Federica displayed an unfortunately wide vibrato that sometimes threatened to become a wobble. In the small role of Luisa's confidante, Laura, Leslie Johnson, a mezzo in her 20s with an uncanny resemblance to the young Meryl Streep, made a fine impression.

Washington Opera

What: "Luisa Miller"

Where: Kennedy Center Opera House, Washington

When: Nov. 17, 20 and 25

Tickets: $52-$110

Call: (202) 416-7800 or 1-800-OPERA

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