- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 7, 2005

Giuseppe Verdi’s relatively early opera “Luisa Miller” is neither his best-known nor his most neglected.

On the Verdi popularity meter, it probably would score a five or six out of 10. Perhaps it’s not appealing enough to perform every season like Puccini’s “La Boheme,” but, loaded with sumptuous orchestral writing and highly athletic arias and ensembles, it shouldn’t be consigned to the “neglected” bin of musical history.

This past Sunday evening, the happily revived Washington Concert Opera weighed in with its hard-charging black-tie edition of the opera at the (thankfully) well-air-conditioned Lisner Auditorium.

The ensemble succeeded in putting “Luisa” right back on the map.

Set in Switzerland and based loosely on Friedrich von Schiller’s play “Love and Intrigue,” “Luisa Miller” is driven by one of those tragic, social-caste plots that troubled the operatic waters of the mid-19th century.

In this case, Luisa, the innocent daughter of a much-decorated military man, is smitten with a handsome stranger, Rodolfo, who turns out to be the local count’s son, traveling in disguise.

Rodolfo’s intentions are honorable, and old Miller is at first reasonably amenable to marriage. However, ambitious Count Walter — aided by his evil henchman, the marvelously named steward, Wurm — turns vengeful, and with good reason.

Not only is Luisa a commoner beneath Rodolfo’s station, but Rodolfo learns that Wurm and the count secretly murdered Walter’s predecessor, and he’s prepared to spill the beans in public if dad won’t back off.

As always, the Washington Concert Opera ordered up a generous portion of delectable singing, making this “Luisa”— sans sets and costumes — a truly memorable night at the opera.

Stealing the show was the towering yet highly expressive voice of baritone Donnie Ray Albert as old Miller. As hard as spark-showering flint and steel and as gentle as the morning breeze, his voice wrapped effortlessly yet decisively around the proud veteran he portrayed, drawing a huge ovation at the final curtain.

Mr. Albert was fortunate in his fellow cast members, who also contributed to a dazzling evening. Soprano Indra Thomas (Luisa) revealed an instrument of great power and agility that nonetheless could melt, expressively, into moments of quiet romantic passion.

Meanwhile, on the villainous side of the equation, the huge bass voices of Matthew Lau (Wurm) and Daniel Sumegi (Count Walter) were given an unusual opportunity to shine in this concert production.

So often, bass voices this rich and resonant get buried during operatic stage performances. Here, though, both bad guys added significant heft and athleticism to the opera’s many gorgeous ensembles.

As the man in the middle, the disguised and later-revealed Rudolfo, son of the count, renowned tenor Richard Leech came on strong in the first stanza but was tormented by a sudden dry throat in the finale, possibly because of Sunday’s dramatic heat wave and high humidity.

Mr. Leech adroitly recovered, however, sort of like a Nats starter working himself out of a jam in the ninth inning to win the ballgame. Professionals always figure out a way to win.

In smaller roles, mezzo-sopranos Gigi Mitchell-Velasco and Kyle Engler both turned in fine, sensitive performances.

Winners, too, were the Washington Concert Opera’s orchestra and chorus. Though the instrumentalists muddled the opening of the overture, they settled down to provide an expressive, organic and at times raucous symphonic accompaniment. Though slightly diction-challenged, the chorus was warm, well-rehearsed and polished, paying exquisite tribute to the notably rich choral writing that is a hallmark of this work.


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