Passion, Politics and Poison: Verdi's 'Luisa Miller'

ACT ONE is called "Love." As it opens Luisa, the title character, is in love with a young man she knows as Carlo. His real name is Rodolfo, and he's the son of the local count, Walter. Luisa's father, Miller, is a retired soldier. He's mistrustful of his daughter's new boyfriend; Miller suspects the young man is lying about his identity.

There's also another man with his eye on Luisa. He's called Wurm, and he's an employee of Count Walter. Both "Carlo" and Wurm would like to marry Luisa, and Miller at first thinks his daughter should have the privilege of choosing her own husband. But when Wurm tells Miller that Carlo is not who he says he is, Miller's suspicions are confirmed and he's furious.

In the next scene we meet the Count himself. Again Wurm -- whose name aptly translates as "worm" -- is up to no good. He tells Walter that Rodolfo has been romancing Luisa, thinking that the Count will have misgivings about his son getting involved with a simple villager. Wurm is right. When Rodolfo appears, his father orders him to marry a recently widowed duchess named Federica. The duchess promptly arrives and declares her love for Rodolfo, but he confesses that he's in love with someone else.

At Miller's house, Luisa is waiting anxiously for the man she still knows as Carlo. Her father tells her who this Carlo really is, and that he's already engaged to Federica. Rodolfo arrives and reaffirms his love for Luisa. He also says he has a way out of his arranged marriage to the Duchess. When Walter shows up and orders the arrest of both Miller and Luisa, Rodolfo threatens to reveal a terrible secret from Walter's past -- that he gained his title by murdering his predecessor. Hearing this, Walter backs off and orders Luisa and Miller to be released.

In ACT TWO, called "The Intrigue," Luisa learns that her father has been jailed after all, for insulting the Count. Wurm tells her there is only one way she can save her father. He'll be released if she agrees to write a letter, saying she had only wanted Rodolfo for his wealth and power -- and that she's now pledging herself to Wurm. Luisa must also swear openly that the letter is hers, and that her love for Wurm is genuine.

In the next scene, Wurm tells Count Walter that Luisa has gone along with his scheme. As they talk, we learn that Wurm was also involved in the murder of the former Count. Walter vows that he'll either protect Wurm or share his fate if they're discovered.

When the Duchess Federica appears, she's told that Rodolfo is now ready to marry her. Luisa is brought in to make her forced renunciation of Rodolfo, and declare her supposed love for Wurm.

In the act's final scene, Rodolfo has been given Luisa's letter. When Wurm appears Rodolfo challenges him to a duel, but Wurm runs off. Rodolfo then tells Walter about Luisa's apparent betrayal, and agrees to marry Federica.

In ACT THREE "Poison," Miller has been released from prison, and comes home to find Luisa distraught. She's writing a letter to Rodolfo -- a suicide pact. Miller now knows what she did to save him, and tries to comfort her. In a long duet the two are reconciled and agree to leave the village together.

Left alone, Luisa begins to pray. Rodolfo enters and secretly pours a vial of poison into a decanter on the table. He confronts Luisa with the letter she wrote denouncing him. When she cannot deny that it's hers, Rodolfo asks her to pour him a drink. When he says it tastes bitter, she swallows some too. Rodolfo tells Luisa the cup was poisoned, and she finally admits the truth about her deal with Wurm. Miller returns to find his daughter dying. Others rush to the scene, including Wurm. With one last effort Rodolfo kills Wurm, and then collapses, dead, beside Luisa's body.