Giuseppe Verdi - Stiffelio
Teatro La Fenice, 2015
Daniele Rustioni, Johannes Weigand, Stefano Secco, Julianna Di Giacomo, Dimitri Platanias, Francesco Marsiglia, Simon Lim, Cristiano Olivieri, Sofia Koberidze
Culturebox - October 2015
I'm not sure how Stiffelio came to be regarded as one of Verdi's lesser and rarely performed operas. Sure, its plot is rather on the 'domestic' side compared to the grand melodrama of personal turmoil conflicting with political duty in Don Carlos, but other than Otello and Falstaff - all later works - you're not going to find the same level of sophisticated musical and dramatic characterisation in in any of Verdi's earlier writing. Admittedly Stiffelio is not even quite at the same level of Verdi greatness that was to see fruition soon after in Rigoletto and La Traviata, but it's clearly heading in that direction in how Verdi combines dramatic action with great melodic invention.
Like quite a few of Verdi's earlier works, a large part of the reason for it being underestimated might have more to do with its troubled history with the censor. Stiffelio (1850) ran into objections from Catholic authorities over the religious content of the work, a work moreover which features a Protestant minister, a married man of God which would have been judged to be too shocking for a sensitive Catholic audience to consider. Verdi wasn't happy with the changes that were demanded and the work consequently languished in obscurity for years until the composer came to rewrite the work in a new setting under the title of Aroldo (1857). Stiffelio received some recognition, and became a personal favourite, when it was revived by the Royal Opera House and broadcast on television in 1993, with José Carreras in the leading role.
La Fenice's 2015 production of Stiffelio plays to the strengths of the work as well as exposing its weaknesses. As is often the case with Verdi, particularly the earlier Verdi works, the measure of the weakness can often be only be determined by the quality of the singers. With the right kind of cast in roles that need very specific voices to meet the kind of challenges they pose, something appears to click into place for certain operas, allowing them to function much better than might be apparent on paper. Carreras and Malfitano, for example, demonstrated what could be made of Stiffelo and Lina in the 1993 production, but while Stefano Secco and Julianna Di Giacomo prove to be very capable in this Venice production, they aren't quite strong or starry enough to give the opera the extra boost that it needs.
Daniele Rustioni in the pit and Johannes Weigand directing for the stage do at least recognise the quality and the nature of the work. Stiffelio is not bombastic early Verdi, but requires a measure of lyricism in the playing and a dynamic that is closer to that of La Traviata. In terms of the setting, the austere approach is one that also matches the subject and setting of a Protestant preacher in a small German religious community. Like La Traviata, where questions of social hypocrisy are also to the fore, the drama in Stiffelio is very much a personal one where the internalised passions occasionally spill over into public life in a scandalous fashion.
Wiegand's very formalised period setting - dark and moody, with the characters all dressed in greatcoats - suits the buttoned-up and concealed illicit passions that lie in the work. It also finds an appropriate manner to capture the way that those passions overflow and are exposed with grander gestures. Hence, when Lina's affair is publicly uncovered in the cemetery scene that develops into a duel between her father Count Stankar and her lover Raffaele at the end of Act II, the stage explodes with the coloured light from the stained glass windows of the church. Even though religious sentiment isn't new, the choir in the church present an emotional and dramatic counterpoint that is rather different from the typical revenge scene. Verdi would use similar religious contrasts later to highlight hypocrisy and conflict, but Stiffelio is refreshingly free from cynicism here.
That and the spirit of forgiveness that is shown in the final scene of Act III are what mark Stiffelio out as a very different work from the more typical Hugo and Schiller heroic dramas that were the main source of inspiration for Verdi's earlier works. It also shows Verdi taking a rather more restrained approach to dramatic realism, or perhaps he was just a little more idealistic and tolerant than when he later contrasted Violetta's dilemma with Parisian society in La Traviata. Again, Wiegand's setting for this grand moment is well-judged, capturing the emotional power of the scene, but keeping it on a human level. That's the overall balance that needs to be maintained in Stiffelio and that's well worked out here between the pit and the stage.
Considering that it's La Traviata that is the measure against which this work needs to be judged - not one that is going to be favourable for any opera - Stiffelio holds up rather well. It is too over-reliant on the cabaletta/cavatina/aria form for it to be able to truly break any formal constraints, but even within that Verdi demonstrates a wonderful lyricism in Stiffelio, with touches - such as the trumpet solo in the overture, a bass aria, some of the clarinet accompaniment of the characterisation - that you won't find quite the same anywhere else in his work. The singing performances however are merely competent in this production, when it needs a little more personality.
Stefano Secco sings reasonably well as Stiffelio, but you don't get a great sense of him being a man of God in conflict with the emotional demands of being a mere man and a betrayed husband. It's there in Verdi's score however and this at least comes across to some extent. Julianna Di Giacomo is a fine Lina, capturing at least the emotional turmoil in a role that is quite limited in development (she's a sinner, while the main male roles are those of betrayed honour). Dimitri Platanias doesn't have great clarity of diction or the full Verdi baritone force for Stankar, but gets the emotional plight of the prototypical Rigoletto role. Francesco Marsiglia's high constricted tenor isn't all that pleasant, but that suits the character of a role that isn't meant to be pleasant either. There's a lovely fullness of tone to bass Simon Lim's Jorg.
Links: Culturebox, Teatro La Fenice