On October 23, 1993, the Metropolitan Opera premiered a newly restored version of Giuseppe Verdi’s verismo trailblazer, Stiffelio. A near complete manuscript score long presumed lost, personally autographed by Verdi, had recently been found in his heirs’ family villa south of Milan. The work had never previously been performed as the composer had originally intended throughout its entire two hundred and forty year history. Stiffelio flashed back to life on the New York stage, star-studded and luminous, then faltered, attracting notably less and less attention during the handful of transatlantic revivals that followed.
History has dealt harshly with this darkly operatic slice of life. Verdi himself abandoned his controversial mid-period tragedy entirely in the face of savage reaction by hostile Church officials. What had begun as a wrenching depiction of a marriage in crisis penned by librettist Francesco Maria Piave was effectively gutted by heavy-handed censors. Verdi did his best to swallow his anger, recycled his music and moved on.
With its starkly staged, sumptuously sung season closer, Voicebox: Opera in Concert has re-exposed a work of enormous artistry and insight whose time has hopefully come again. Stiffelio’s narrative of forgiveness resonates powerfully in today’s increasingly fractured world. Passion and piety strain at opposite ends of a tense storyline.
Stiffelio, a charismatic Protestant pastor, returns home after an extended preaching tour. His congregation has assembled to welcome him led by his wife, Lina, her father, Count Stankar and Stiffelio’s devotional guide, Jorg. Unbeknownst to her husband, Lina has fallen victim to the persistent advances of a neighbouring nobleman, Raffaele di Leuthold, who has seduced her.
The parishioners scatter to prepare for worship. Finally free to share a private moment with his wife, Stiffelio suddenly notices his mother’s ring, a gift to Lina, is missing from her hand. Flustered, Lina offers only guilty silence by way of explanation. Fighting back his worst fears, Stiffelio exits to be with his flock. Resolving to confess all to Stiffelio in a letter, Lina begins to write. Her father bursts onto the scene. Accusing her of dishonouring the Stankar name, he forbids her to mention a single word of the affair he has long suspected. Meanwhile, Stiffelios’s distrust continues to mount. Later that evening, responding to a tip from the ever observant Jorg, Stiffelio discovers what appears to be a note to Lina tucked between the pages of one of the couple’s treasured holy books. Before he can read it, the Count tears the message from Stiffelio’s grasp. Stiffelio is outraged. Lina is shattered. Stankar challenges Raffaele to a duel.
Later that night, Lina prays for strength at her mother’s tomb. Raffaele enters. Lina demands the return of her ring and other tokens of her now extinguished affection. Count Stankar steps out of the darkness, intent on revenge. Insults are hurled. The clash of steel brings Stiffelio rushing from evening prayers to intervene. Stankar will not be deterred. He will have the seducer’s blood. His daughter’s shame will be avenged. Stiffelio is thunderstruck. Snatching the Count’s sword, he confronts Raffaele himself. Just then, the faint sound of a hymn is heard drifting from Stankar’s family chapel nearby. Stiffelio’s flock is waiting for him to minister to their spiritual needs. Wracked with despair, Stiffelio drops his weapon.
Alone in his castle, Count Stankar is tortured by feelings of self-loathing, but when he hears word of Raffaele’s presence under his very roof, his frustration explodes into fury.
Elsewhere in Castle Stankar, Stiffelio forces Raffaele to listen from an adjoining chamber while he confronts Lina. When she arrives, Stiffelio offers her a divorce. Lina agrees to sign the certificate, not as an admission of having betrayed her husband, whom she insists she has always loved, but as a means to seek forgiveness from Stiffelio, her pastor. Just then Stankar enters, his sword streaked with blood. Raffaele is dead.
Lina and the congregation gather to hear Stiffelio’s long overdue homily. Stiffelio opens the Bible, vowing to be guided by whatever text God chooses to reveal to him. It is the tale of the woman taken in adultery from the Book of John. E la donna, la donna, perdonata s’alzò, reads Stiffelio. (“And the woman, the woman, rose forgiven.”) Perdonata! Perdonata! Lina lifts her face to heaven in gratitude.
Stiffelio is very much a transitional work for Verdi. At only slightly over an hour and a half in length, the exquisitely concentrated psychodrama forms a sturdy bridge to the composer’s later epic works. Preceded by Luisa Miller and followed by Rigoletto, Stiffelio is as musically forceful as it is theatrically punchy. Older traditional bel canto forms, galloping cabalettas and slow, luxurious cantabile arias are re-energized and refreshed. Tuneful recitatives subtly foreshadow the speech-inflected ariosos of Simon Boccanegra and Falstaff to come. But it is in Stiffelio’s ensembles where Verdi really stretches. The soaring resonant septet that closes Act I, A turbar la bella calma (“To disturb the lovely tranquility”) in which the opera’s full complement of characters backed by chorus is deployed, foreground voices accented in stunning counterpoint, is positively monumental in scale.
Appearing as Stiffelio and Lina, tenor Ernesto Ramirez and soprano Laura Albino bring an appealing blend of passion and refinement to their demanding roles. Both are highly engaged, polished performers, more lyric than spinto, but clearly gifted with ample Verdian ping to ignite the full range of Stiffelio’s explosive fireworks. Ramirez, with his bright ringing top, is authentically Italianate in pitch and timbre, crisp, animated and sparkling. Albino is a good match, warm and velvety, despite the occasional hint of chilliness in her upper register. Her mid to lower ranges are liquid and flawless.
Bass baritone Geoffrey Sirett as Stankar gives an acutely mesmerizing performance, riveting in its theatricality, vocally vivid, emotionally resonant. Verdi relies heavily on his Count to turn story. Stankar’s frequent appearances as a dramatic provocateur propel the opera into some of its darkest, most anguished corners. Sirett is utterly in command, delivering Stankar’s famous Act III aria, Lina, pensai che un angelo (“Lina, I thought you an angel”) with heart-stopping intensity and excrutiating precision, a catch in his throat, tears in his voice. It is an unforgettable show-stopping moment.
Hassan Anami is Raffaele, his smooth, seductive tenor a perfect fit for his character. Baritone Marco Petracchi sings a shadowy, enigmatic Jorg. Dina Shikhman and Fabián Arciniegas give accomplished performances in comprimario roles as Lina’s devout cousins, Dorotea and Federico.
The Voicebox Chorus under the steady direction of Robert Cooper makes a handful of fleeting yet decidedly arresting appearances as Stiffelio’s congregation, voices sounding more appropriately choir-like and blended than operatically distinctive. The effect is both stirring and musically splendid.
Stiffelio is a difficult opera to present in a concert environment. The depth of Verdi’s richly textured writing requires sturdy, substantial instrumental forces to reveal the brilliant maestro’s music in all its glory. Bold Romantic colours quickly fade, even disappear entirely, when played on piano alone. The problem looms larger when an accompanist, for whatever reason, is unable to convey a sense of orchestral shading and nuance.
Voicebox: Opera in Concert has set itself an unenviable challenge. Verdi’s dynamic signature score pleads for an expanded performance. Until that day arrives in Torono, however, this unflinching, still robust interpretation, will be the only one to have ever graced a local stage. For that Voicebox deserves a grateful bravo.