A Verdi opera that virtually no one knows? Opera Australia’s announcement of the production Luisa Miller was greeted with excitement by cognoscenti tired of the inevitable cycle of Traviatas, Rigolettos and Trovatores. There are reasons why the opera hasn’t managed to gain a foothold in the repertory, starting with the music, which though pleasant and effective feels rather generic. All the characteristic Verdian fingerprints can be found, but only rarely are they moulded into something truly compelling. Operas can be saved from obscurity if even a few numbers gain traction in the public consciousness, but with the possible exception of the tenor solo “Quando le sere al placido”, this hasn’t happened with Luisa Miller. Dramatically, the work is flawed and overly melodramatic and those problems were compounded in Giancarlo del Monaco’s production, which was alienated and uninvolving. Luckily a first-rate cast provided ample compensation.

All the action of the opera took place in what was effectively a black-box space, with only a handful of chairs as props. Doing away with naturalistic sets can focus attention on the timeless dramatic core of a story; unfortunately, this story did not bear such scrutiny. The core of the plot – a tyrannical father and his henchman extracting the son from an emotional entanglement with a lower-class woman by means of blackmail and emotional torture – was comical in its excess, as the audible sniggers from seats near me testified. Such detachment from the events of the story was matched by the demeanour of the chorus members, who did not emote or participate in the action; instead, they processed at funeral-march-pace around the perimeter of the stage like automata, men holding candles, women flowers. This proved to be a distraction at several points in the evening.

This wasn’t the only way in which the stage direction was questionable – several gestures/actions (chair hurling, Miller attempting to grapple with Walter) were repeated in a way that weakened whatever dramatic force they might have had the first time without their acquiring some ritualistic significance in compensation. Whatever aesthetic point the production was making through its minimalism didn’t come off: the thought that refused to go away was that the company (or rather, companies, since it was a co-production with Opéra de Lausanne, premiered there in 2014) had refused to spend money on something which would not become a regular item in the repertory.

The only significant set changes occurred during the Overture and the final scene. In the former, a set of faux-marble statues of furniture and people on a platform was slowly inverted and drawn above the stage, hanging above the action portentously. This was reversed in the last scene, when the writhing poisoned lovers had to slither out of the way of the returning platform. Luckily verisimilitude is never a requirement of operatic death scenes. One might have hoped that the when the statues returned they would have acquired significance from the intervening action, but in vain. It all felt like ‘effects without a cause’, to use Wagner’s damning verdict on contemporaneous operas.

Soprano Nicole Car is making waves internationally, and her stunning performance in the title role was another triumph. She was the jewel in a top-notch cast, her creamy yet focussed tone a delight. Diego Torre especially shone in Act II, when his tenor mannerisms were focussed on story-telling. Only occasionally did he show us what he was capable of at the quieter end of the spectrum, but such moments were among the most satisfying. Dalibor Jenis was a slightly stiff father, but his scene with Car in Act III was the highpoint of the evening. Daniel Sumegi was physically and vocally a good fit for the villainous Wurm, whom he played more as a Scarpia-like manipulator than a jealous lover. His triumphant smirk at the carnage as the curtain went down was genuinely chilling.

Raymond Aceto was superb vocally as a chain-smoking Count Walter, and worked well in a variety of ensembles. Sian Pendry sounded a little woolly as Federica, while Eva Kong shone in her exchanges with the chorus at the start of Act III. The tricky off-stage chorus moments in Act I were exemplary in their clarity and precision. The acoustic in the Joan Sutherland Theatre did no favours to the strings at the opening of the Overture, where the rapid repeated accompanying patterns were blurred into indistinctness, but elsewhere the band under Andrea Licata was supportive and accurate. There was some fine solo playing from the winds throughout the night, starting with the clarinet second theme in the Overture.

My 3-star rating is an attempt to balance a barely 2-star production with a cast which gave us a more than 4-star show. In sum, kudos to the OA management for making it possible to experience this work live, but go to listen to the glorious singing rather than for the visuals: a reminder, perhaps, of what opera’s core values should be.