Verdi’s Luisa Miller, premiered in December 1849 in Naples, is an opera performed in three acts, and set to a libretto by Salvatore Cammarano, to whom Verdi had appealed for “a brief drama with plenty of interest, action and above all feeling – which would make it easier to set to music”. While the narrative draws heavily on the German dramatist Friederich von Schiller’s play Kabale und Liebe as a source, Verdi’s concern with love and honour far outweighs his exploration of the “intrigue” trajectory, and as such, Luisa Miller is often touted as one of the forerunners of bourgeois realism in tragic opera.

In short, it is the story of young lovers whose purist and noblest intentions are entirely foiled by a handful of rather wicked adults. The unassuming Luisa, daughter of a pensioned military man, is in love with Rodolfo, the son of Count Walter. As opera would have it, the Count has already planned to marry his son to Duchess Federica, whom Rodolfo has known since childhood. When he finds out about his son’s obsession with the peasant girl, however, the Count reacts badly, and offends Luisa’s father by contending that she is nothing but a farmer’s whore. In trying to defend her honour, her father is promptly arrested and thrown in prison. Meantime, Rodolfo’s knowledge of the fratricide that led to his father’s ascent to position threatens to put a wrench in the works and weighs heavily over the Count’s actions.

Thinking her father’s life is at stake, poor Luisa bends to the demands of Wurm, the well-named, oily attendant to the Count who also harbours a passion for her. She pens a letter that Wurm dictates, contending that the accusation of her affections for Rodolfo is false, and that she loves Wurm instead. Predictably, all hell breaks loose after that: anybody knows that the truth is a tightly woven cloth; loosen one thread of it, and the whole fabric unravels. Yet the hot-headed Rodolfo is quick to believe the rumours that Luisa has betrayed him, and poisons both himself and the unsuspecting Luisa − they might at least be together beyond the grave − before the tragedy ends with the fatal stabbing of the vile Wurm.

The amazing power of this production’s Luisa (Elena Moşuc) drove the opera, outshining the Duchess (Judith Schmid) whose voice had trouble taking hold, particularly in the famous a cappella quartet. Granted, the Duchess’s role was minor by comparison, evidence of the fact that Verdi categorically avoided having two female leads in this work. But with the quartet in Act II bending out of shape, there was little conductor Carlo Rizzi could do to save it; getting it back on track was a feat left to Moşuc and the superb Count (Vitalij Kowaljow), whose voices remained strong and clear.

Wenwei Zhang gave a terrific performance as the Count’s chancellor, Wurm. The villain’s hair was pasted to his scalp much like Count Dracula’s, and he tilted his head at odd and quirky angles to boost the discomfort level. He was dressed top-to-toe in the deep purples of a black-and-blue abrasion, his stiff limbs often fell forward before his feet caught up with them, and his pained facial expressions combined to make him the most convincing of bloodsuckers. Further, his desire for Luisa was palpable, and his dark bass-baritone voice, nothing less than superb. The two fathers, the great Leo Nucci as Miller, and Vitalij Kowaljow as the devious Count, were also as fine in their acting skills as they were in their major singing roles. Each had an utterly consistent stage presence, both imparting the agony that “losing” a child they wanted to save brought to bear. Rodolfo was sung very well by the Italian tenor Ivan Magri, but I’d have liked more subtle modulation in his voice and more nuances of volume.

Paolo Fantin’s set design was highly original, and readily underscored the duplicity that was the ever-present in this production: blue blood/laymen; loyalty/deceit: innocence/corruption; the family/the State; dominion/subservience; confinement/freedom. A cubic “house” formed a sizeable centre structure that unfolded out into a cross four ways to make countless possibilities for action. The “symbols” interspersed − the plastic Lady Madonna, the heavy lilies that Luisa discarded before she lost her purity to Death itself − hardly felt self-conscious, but worked instead to “materialize” the vocal score. Further, the 80-strong choir of supportive voices, while demanding that we suspend disbelief (How many people showed up spontaneously at YOUR last party, for example?) countered the “grey” of protagonist Luisa’s every working day. And under the direction of Jürg Hämmerli, this superb opera choir was a reflection of the energy and enthusiasm that marked Luisa’s innocent youth.

The late 18th century costumes (Carla Teti) were also stunning. A palette of grey and silver predominated in the principals’ dress and waistcoats; the townspeople wore variations on a “more simply cut, but rather dusty” look. Lined up against the siding of the stage’s central while “cube,” the slowly turning figures looked like a digital print, thanks to some spectacular lighting effects (Hans-Rudolf Kunz). With so many duplicitous messages, the technical team also used video projections that loomed larger than life. When the two ill-fated lovers are dying, they stand among what looks like laboratory experiments, whose petri dishes are filled with creeping substances that, oddly enough, resemble blue blood.

Finally, director Damiano Michieletto’s choice to include two children (Rima van Dijk and Nino Dührkoop) was an unexpected, but well-chosen, surprise. Representing Rodolfo and Luisa as youngsters saw the duo underscore – without a single spoken or sung word – how parenting can border on obsessive over-protection. The children encounter one another as equals on stage, if sometimes just to move props or overhear scenes that will in one way or another affect their futures. At the very end of the opera, though, when the two lovers have been poisoned by Rodolfo’s own hand, the two children stand on a huge double bed centre stage, hurriedly undressing to embrace the other fervently. This was the “Might Have Been” of the story, had it not been for the forces of conceit, lack of compassion, and the shadows of misinterpretation.

What is crystal clear, however, is that the beauty of Zurich's Luisa Miller is in showing how one sometimes has to make a choice between conviction and one’s own blood, and that whatever the outcome will be remains anyone’s guess.