Stiffelio‘s power to provoke has gone, but its power to move has not.
And the principle themes of Verdi’s once-controversial, now hardly known drama (those of love, betrayal and redemption) are made blisteringly clear in Elijah Moshinsky‘s renowned production.
As the bleak landscape on the stage curtain makes clear, it is the isolation of the characters, both as individuals and collectively in an unforgiving community, that makes the work so deeply moving.
Yet I sense that this production demands a high-octane cast to bring it to life and, vocally, this was an outstanding evening. Soprano Sondra Radvanovsky had one spell of dodgy intonation in Act Two, but her portrayal of Lina, the unfaithful and despairing spouse, was musically and dramatically enthralling. Diva she is and her dynamic stage presence was matched only be her spellbinding, everlasting top notes.
This performance, however, was neither overbearing nor gratuitous: rather, the character’s emotional turmoil in facing her husband, her lover, her father and her community was presented with harrowing clarity. The two soprano arias were minor masterpieces of emotive phrasing, Radvanovsky soared effortlessly above a formidable Royal Opera Chorus in Act Three scene two and her relief at Stiffelio’s final forgiveness could even bring a tear to the eye.
Yet did he forgive her? Jos Cura‘s glassy eyed stare at the work’s conclusion made no promises for the future of the relationship, and it made a lot of sense after the tenor’s emotionally giving performance. What pleased was the lack of histrionics: Stiffelio’s animalistic, Otello-like rage was kept firmly under lock and key, and when it did burst forth, it did so with venomous fury. Vocally, Cura’s inhumanly baritonal tenor was deployed with a manner standing somewhere between good and bad taste. I could have done with a tad less barking in Act One but, in Act Three, Cura found a noble and exciting ring up above.
But forget baritonal tenors, the most Verdian pleasure was to be found in the shape of the baritone himself. Roberto Frontali‘s voice was in excellent shape throughout – colourful, even and well projected – and he characterised Stankar with outstanding imagination. Imagination was also the key in the conducting of Mark Elder, who found a fire in the lower strings and did an admirable job in shaping the occasionally rambling score; the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House once again proved that they are among the finest house orchestras in the world.
Only Moshinsky’s production was cause for concern. The direction itself is superlative, but the sets of the outer acts are claustrophobic and the lighting consistently dour. Only the central act, with its horror-flick graveyard setting and expressionist lightning flashes, excited the eyes. The ears and the mind went away much happier.