Review by Diana, MaceVindaloo, Bunchbox, FengShui
Libretto: Francesco Maria Piave
Venue: Metropolitan Opera House, New York City
Conductor: Placido Domingo
Production: Giancarlo del Monaco
Set Design: Michael Scott
Stage Direction: David Kneuss
Starring: José Cura (Stiffelio); Sondra Radvonosky (Lina); Andrzej Dobber (Stanker); Phillip Ens (Jorg); Michael Fabiano (Raffaele)
Rating: Imperial Star Destroyer crowd pleaser
The church given it's propensity to control and dictate killed Giuseppi Verdi's Stiffelio before it had a chance to be shown. It's about an evangelical married minister who's wife has been unfaithful to him in his absence. Her father, humiliated, takes matters into his own hands. The ending is death, divorce and finally, forgiveness from God, even if not by the man.
A curious bit of history the opera had not been performed at all as Verdi originally wrote it till 1993, by the Metropolitan Opera in New York, 92 years after Verdi had died. Verdi, to get his opera on stage, changed the story to make the priest into a crusader another sort of man of God, to be sure, albeit not frocked. The opera did poorly, and everyone forgot about it, especially since Verdi went on to compose the likes of Rigoletto and other operas for which he is rightly famous. Scholars discovered that though the composer had ordered all copies of this opera and it's bastard rewrite Aroldo be destroyed, someone had squirreled away an original autograph. Bits and pieces of it came to the attention of music lovers, and it was finally 1992 before that nearly complete autograph was found.
Our impression is that the Metropolitan Opera more or less single-handedly researched and revived this little opera. In 1995, they had Placido Domingo star as the minister, and the maestro James Levine in the pit to conduct. The gamble apparently paid off, but perhaps it is the fate of this charming little opera to offer challenges. The performance we saw in 2010 features Placido Domingo as the conductor, and former conductor Jose Cura as Stiffelio.
We also decided to see this opera because we'd seen a disappointing Faust, and wanted to see one that had a more traditional set and a another great soprano. Sondra Radvinovsky is a great soprano, and we heard her in an audio recording of Don Giovanni. She has a tremendous, grainy, solid edge to her voice, which has been described as "tremulous, earthy, warbling" by professional reviewers. Yet all agreed that her voice conveyed warmth and her acting was very, very good. She played the confused and guilt-ridden Lina so realistically that we wondered about her personal life. (AFter all, she is a mutually proclaimed "BFF" with Dmitry Hvorovstovsky, which whom she'd been touring in concert.)
Jose Cura, who started his musical life as a conductor, played the strong and vulnerable Stiffelio. He's back after a long absence, away on a mission, and notices his wife is not overjoyed to see him. His history a fugitive, he sought refuge in Stanker's house, the man who is Lina's father. Over time, he bacame a preacher, and married Lina; we don't know what Stiffelio was running from, or his current mindset over his fate.
This was a very pleasing opera with really appropriate sets and singers, and it would have been amiably short, except for the second of two 30+ minute intermissions. This sometimes happens in opera, but the third act was shorter than the intermission needed to assemble it. Bad planning and set design, perhaps. Considering that operas often run over three hours, adding what amounted to a frivolous half hour was unfair to the audience. There is a difference at the Met Opera House between a set-change and an intermission. The latter must be at least 30 minutes in length; a set-change can be less, but doesn't allow for the audience to leave the theatre, or for latecomers to be seated. Surely, the final set could have been designed to be more quickly assembled?
All in all, this opera was earlier than the great ones for which Verdi is known, but it did not deserve to be forgotten. The problem was that the censors required that the main character not be a man of the cloth; Verdi did actually try to change the action to be about a 13th century English crusader instead. But without the strictures of the church on its followers and workers, this would not have been such a delicious story of vice, wrongdoing, and forgiveness. Ironically, that's a much more Christian message than a betrayed man killing his wife and her lover the expected behavior in a drama in Verdi's day.
Domingo is indeed one of history's greatest tenors, but he is not a conductor. He's been criticized for deferring to the singers too much, to the point that the music lacked energy. We did feel this, and after a shaky start in the prelude, we were relieved that Domingo's control of the orchestra stabilized. He's still learning, a laudable feat for a man of 70 suffering from colon cancer!
One of us had had a terrible day at work, and when asked if she wanted to come see this opera, she looked it up and said, "Ooh! A stupid slut story!" And she had a wonderful time and admired the sets, the costumes, the singing an operatic soap opera turned out to be just what she needed. Another felt it was the perfect antidote to the perhaps too-modern Faust we'd seen a couple of months earlier. So, for an overlooked and almost-extinct opera, it did quite well to make us fans again!
Production images from www.nytimes.com and www.metopera.org
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