Verdi had already had his great successes with Nabucco, Ernani and Macbeth, when he composed this opera. The libretto was adapted from Schiller's “bourgeois tragi-comedy” – “Intrigue and Love” by Salvatore Commarano.
The story is set in the Tyrol at the beginning of the 18th Century. The first act begins with a celebration: the villagers congratulate Luisa, the spruce young daughter of the veteran soldier Miller. It is her birthday. Werner is among those who is attracted to the girl. He arrived in the village only a few weeks before, as part of Count Walter's court. The evil Wurm, to whom her father had once promised her hand in marriage, naturally notices the suspicious signs. He talks with her father. He discloses a secret: Werner is actually none other than Rudolf, the Count's son. In the second scene, Wurm (which translates as Worm!) weaves further intrigues. Now Walter learns that his son is planing to marry a commoner. The Count is naturally hurtled into a fine old rage for he had already selected a wife for him, in the person of Duchess Amalia. Rudolf pleads in vain, Walter decides to stick to his decision. In desperation, Rudolf rushes to Amalia, to whom he confesses his situation. In the third scene, her father tells the girl what he has found out about “Werner.” Rudolf appears, swearing that he will still marry Luisa. At which point, Walter emerges. He orders his son to leave the girl and respect the wishes of his father. In his anger, father draws his weapon, but Walter's body guards manage to disarm him and clap him in irons. The embittered Rudolf then threatens his father: he'll tell everyone a secret. Walter is visibly fearful.
In the second act, we finally learn what this secret is. Walter and Wurm once treacherously murdered Walter's uncle. Rudolf ran to his aid and learned from his dying words what actually happened.
In the meantime, Miller is taken to prison. Wurm continues to plot. He offers aid to Luisa: he will release her father if she will state in writing that she has never loved Rudolf. Luisa, after a long fight, eventually complies. In the second scene, she confirms this verbally in front of the Count and Amalia. Naturally, Wurm takes care to ensure that Rudolf finds out. Rudolf readies himself for a duel, but the cowardly Wurm runs away.
In the third act, a sad ending awaits us. Miller is released but he learns the price of his freedom. Rudolf appears on stage. He brings poison: he and the girl imbibe the poisoned drink. Before her death, Luisa tells Rudolf the truth. Later, Miller runs in and embraces his dying daughter. Rudolf has only enough strength to finally stab the omnipresent Wurm.
This rather complicated story (this above is still shorn of many of its convolutions!) does not help the opera. In spite of its fine music, at its premiere in 1849, it was not a great success. It was staged in Pest a few years later, and failed in quite spectacular fashion, although the fiasco was primarily due to the inadequate preparations and the musicians.