Director Francesca Zambello received the San Francisco Opera’s prestigious medal last night, but the star of the evening was Michael Fabiano. The tenor’s energy brought life and excitement to a static production. Luisa Miller is a tough sell – less musically and dramatically exciting than Verdi’s more popular works, with a plot that strips the nuance out of the Schiller play it’s based on. But Zambello’s production does nothing to increase the opera’s interest. While beautiful historical costumes abound, the chorus tends to stand still or process slowly in lines, and the set of moving panels and a giant horse often dwarfs the singers.

The exposition-filled first half plodded along as we learned of the love of the noble Rodolfo and the peasant Luisa, and the jealousy of the scheming Wurm. Even the climactic scene when Rodolfo’s father Count Walter bursts into the Miller household to insult Luisa and arrest her father failed to captivate. Ekaterina Semenchuk stood out during the act as the flighty Duchess Frederica (in love with Rodolfo), thanks to her rich, smooth contralto and alluring mix of tenderness and haughtiness.

The production picked up speed for the final two acts. Andrea Silvestrelli’s honeyed bass gained an especially menacing edge as he (Wurm) blackmailed Luisa into writing him a love letter. Count Walter and Wurm scheme to get the letter to the hands of Rodolfo, who reacts with the breathtaking aria “Quando le sere al placido.” Fabiano’s warmth and power of tone were complemented by the air of genuine despair he exuded. Never has an operatic murder-suicide seemed more plausible. The emotionally cold show suddenly became profoundly affecting.

The conclusion is foregone but heart-breaking: Rodolfo poisons both himself and Luisa, learning of her innocence after he has already killed her. The two lovers’ parents and Wurm arrive as they lie dying. In his final moments, Rodolfo shoots Wurm and tells his father, “Let my death be your punishment!” Luisa’s father Miller looks on in mute despair.

As Miller, Vitaliy Bilyy sang with uncommon steel in his baritone voice and painted a touching portrait of paternal affection. Daniel Sumegi’s Count Walter had a drier and wobblier tone, though he croaked out some truly impressive low notes and acted suitably conflicted about the crimes he had committed for the sake of his unappreciative son. Jacqueline Piccolino showed off a sweet, full instrument in the bit part of Luisa’s peasant friend Laura. In the title role, Leah Crocetto filled the house with sound while retaining the lightness of tone suitable to her character’s youth and innocence. Her acting was no match for Fabiano’s, but their voices blended beautifully, especially in the final act.

Conductor Nicola Luisotti kept the orchestra balanced and together with the singers. His tempo choices initially felt slow, but that may have been more a fault of the dull staging. The San Francisco Opera Orchestra played well, with the violins and woodwinds sounded particularly excellent in the overture. A special commendation is due to the clarinet soloist (Jose Gonzalez Granero) for precise, soulful playing. The San Francisco Opera Chorus also produced a consistently strong and well-blended sound.

Luisa Miller seemed like a boldly unusual choice for San Francisco Opera’s opening night, but the static period production felt both safe and dull, but the great cast and playing made for a very enjoyable evening.