‘On earth a father resembles God by his goodness, not by his severity’, explains Miller to the castle steward Wurm, who has designs on the hand of Miller’s daughter. But Luisa is to be allowed a free choice in her love — and her heart is already spoken for: by the son of Count Walter, Rodolfo, who is unconcerned by her being just an ordinary girl from the village. However, to his corrupt father Luisa is an insupportable thorn in his flesh, as he has chosen the influential Duchess of Ostheim to be Rodolfo’s wife. Where thought is subject to notions of power, prestige and wealth, even a loving father can easily become a tyrant. During the course of the diabolical intrigue woven by the count and Wurm, Luisa is faced with an impossible choice: only if she gives up Rodolfo can she save her father, who has been placed under arrest, from death.
Compared to the play Kabale und Liebe (Love and Intrigue), which Verdi — a great admirer of Schiller throughout his life — suggested as a subject himself, the opera neglects the dimension of political indictment, the cry against absolutist tyranny. First performed in Naples in 1849, Luisa Miller focusses on the familial, on the ‘bourgeois tragedy’, as Schiller termed his play. The social contrast between the two fathers naturally remains crucial: the implacable pitilessness of the more powerful count destroys the happiness of their children, for whom the only solace remains — as so often in romantic opera — in fulfilment beyond the grave.
The ‘private’ world that Verdi appropriated for himself with Luisa Miller offered him the opportunity of continuing the intimacy of I due Foscari (1844) and conveying a more profound and nuanced portrayal of psychological processes than before. Particularly in the touching final act Luisa Miller is notable for a new refinement of musical thought, ‘a more thorough resolution of the drama into terms of pure music’ (Julian Budden): a significant step towards the works of Verdi’s mature period.