Almost everything about Verdi's Stiffelio is incredibly modern. For one thing, the play on which it is based (Le Pasteur by Souvestre and Bourgeois) was written not long before Verdi gave it the operatic treatment. As a result, the costumes and settings of the original production reflected the real-life experiences of the audience (which was something that the censors objected to at the time of its premiere). The story is set in a very sparse, morally suffocating and closed community and is so free of romance and joy that it seems like more of a twentieth-century piece than an opera of 1850 (the year before Verdi wrote Rigoletto).
Reacting to this mood in the libretto, Verdi shakes up the conventional compositional procedures of Italian opera. For instance, the opening scene follows the format usually employed in a finale, complete with a central concertato (a big concerted number for all the soloists and chorus) and stretta (fast section), rather than using the normal formula for an introductory tableau; this turns up the dramatic temperature from the very start and hurls us into the heart of the plot.
The other obvious reform is his attitude towards arias. Although Stankar has a 'full' aria (with three movements) in the third act, the other arias in the work are more highly situated in the drama. Stiffelio's 'aria con pertichini' ('aria with interventions') in the second scene of act one, for instance, has the outward appearance of a duet for Stiffelio and his wife Lina; yet Lina is symbolically never once allowed to participate in the lyric moment, which is Verdi's way of communicating to the audience that Stiffelio will not listen to her side of the story. The most vital scene of all, however, is the final showdown between Lina and Stiffelio, when she agrees to divorce him, then demands that he must hear her confession as her minister. The duet is unlike anything else the composer ever wrote; he replaces traditional large movements with a chain of smaller ones, each with a contrasting mood to match the changing emotion of each line of the text.
Elijah Moshinsky's 1993 production responds brilliantly to the piece's modernity, moving the action to a barren church community in late nineteenth-century America. Michael Yeargan's sets are still as evocative and lavish as ever, though in Act Two he makes the stage space a little too shallow so that the action is rather cramped. I admired the closing moments of Act Two, when Stiffelio falls prostrate in the reflected light of a cross set into the church's stained-glass window: this is a valid response to Verdi's original plan (which should have a cross in the graveyard). Less convincing were the ridiculously melodramatic flashes of lightning (still retained in this revival, sadly) in Act Two and the hilarious bloodstains on Stankar's face and clothes on his appearance after killing Raffaele in Act Three; these are the paraphernalia of Il trovatore, not Verdi's most forward-looking opera. On the whole, though, this is a very intelligent and solid production that deserves to be seen more often.
Whether through first-night jitters or exhaustion from a heavy rehearsal schedule, all three of the lead singers suffered vocal strain of some sorts; at the same time, all three of them compensated by giving their roles vitality and energy, and the entire company acted well.
The first act seemed a particular challenge to José Cura in the title role. In his short aria of the boatman, the ensuing concertato and in his duet with Lina, Cura had a tendency to push his voice, with the effect that he sometimes lost accurate tuning and, in particular, he kept missing rests or proceeding too quickly through notes so that conductor Mark Elder and the orchestra had a hard job of keeping up. After the interval, however, Cura seemed more at ease. His tone was more exciting in the graveyard scene, and both of the final scenes were deeply moving; his acting was unflaggingly dedicated throughout.
Yet I found Sondra Radvanovsky's performance as Lina even more compelling than Cura's. In her case, the nerves or fatigue resulted in severe intonation problems, which weren't helped by her almost constant use of vibrato. But there was something utterly arresting about her approach to the part that made Lina into a far more active character than I have ever witnessed in performances of this opera before. Lina's prayer in Act One is usually rather dull, while the upbeat cabaletta to her Act Two aria has always seemed to me to be somewhat out of character. Not here; the combination of Elder and Radvanovsky reaped endless rewards.
Until he started his taxing aria at the start of the third act, I held Roberto Frontali's Stankar as the most securely Italianate performance of the evening. But then disaster struck: he was out of tune and had little tone during the andante and seemed strained in the cabaletta (though all credit to him for following the specific vocal markings in the score, which Christopher Wintle's excellent programme note points to as the height of Verdi's daring in the opera). Nevertheless, he sang beautifully in the Lina-Stankar duet, which seemed here to be almost equal to the great Rigoletto-Gilda duet in Verdi's next opera.
Solid support came from Alastair Miles in excellent voice (though I'm not sure why he was given a wig that made him look like the village idiot rather than the parish's voice of moral austerity) and both the Jette Parker Young Artists (Liora Grodnikaite as Dorotea and Nikola Matisi? as Federico) involved in the production excelled, particularly in the opening scene. Sadly, Reinaldo Macías was below par as Raffaele, neither vocally secure nor a particularly captivating actor.
Mark Elder did a sterling job of keeping things together in the pit, though it was a pity that maintaining momentum seemed to be so needful in this often shaky performance. Act One was particularly problematic, and it may have been as much a result of his extreme tempos as the singers' vocal tiredness; he stuck steadfastly to most of Edward Downes' metronome markings in his special ROH edition of the score, despite the fact that Downes himself showed more moderation when he actually conducted the piece. The first section of the Sinfonia was on the leadenly slow side, while the faster section drove the musicians to excess. Those caveats aside, Elder's reading was one of the glories of the evening: I admired his generosity as an accompanist of singers, was thrilled by the crashing cymbals in the stretta of the final scene of Act One and, as ever, found his instinctive understanding for the quality of Verdi's music deeply gratifying.
I hope and believe that the production will settle down over the next performance or two, and in spite of my reservations on this first outing, I would strongly recommend this rare opportunity to hear one of Verdi's most modern and unjustly neglected works onstage at Covent Garden. It may never happen again.