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John Steane
Gramophone, September 2008

Gramophone Recommends

Covent Garden's modest Stiffelio greatly improves on the Met opulence

A year ago (9/07) Stiffelio was reported sinking under the weight of a lavish production at the Metropolitan. At Covent Garden, the production team, led by Elijah Moshinsky, had much more the right idea and, in one decision of casting, the visual element is transformed. The opera has only one female among the principals, and, rather as in Otello, the action turns on her largely passive character. She is Lina, wife of the minister of a Protestant community where the way of life is simple and biblical law is strictly upheld. At the Met she is played by Sharon Sweet whose ample form and golden curls suggest (however unjustly) an ungodly allowance of worldly pleasure. In her husband's absence she has "fallen", and Catherine Malfitano (the Lina at Covent Garden) is attractive enough to make that seem plausible while remaining in figure and demeanour one of the devout, and a "pure" woman at heart.

The other major difference in production is one of scale. At the Metropolitan everything has gone up in the world. The minister's house is palatial, the modest gathering to celebrate his return a full-scale ambassador's dinner party. Lina's father is decked out in full military grandeur, while at Covent Garden he is clad in simple civilian dignity. Covent Garden's graveyard is a matter of plain stones and crosses the Met's sports elaborate and (surely) abhorred images. In every respect the London production is better, with unostentatious care taken over furnishings and each member of the chorus provided with an identity.

The Stiffelio is Carreras in what was probably the finest achievement among roles following his serious illness. Gregory Yurisich sings magnificently as the father. Gwynne Howell is a pillar of sonorous authority, and Robin Leggate, having played Cassio so often, fits in perfectly as his guilty counterpart. Edward Downes conducts with a sure and thoughtful touch.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, July 2008

An opera with the subject of adultery, revenge and forgiveness in an extreme Protestant sect had little chance of a future in censor-ridden Italy of the 1850s. After many imposed changes, the  disastrous premiere and a second equally unsuccessful attempt with a revised text, left Verdi with no alternative but to abandon Stiffelio, using the music for the less than triumphant opera, Aroldo, which was, however, given sufficient welcome for Stiffelio to be completely forgotten until the score was discovered in the 1960s and a favorable reception was awarded the long lost work. The story relates how the zealous preacher, Stiffelio, arrives at the home of Count Stanker, a sympathiser of Stiffelio’s religion. There Stiffelio falls in love with his daughter, Lina, whom he marries. Time passes and Stiffelio is again travelling to spread the gospel, and on his way back the boatman tells him of the strange story of a young man leaping from his lover’s window and into the river in an effort to escape detection. Steffelio on his return relates the story and Stanker recognises that the woman is Lina and the man Raffael. He challenges the young man to a duel to erase the smear from the family name. Stiffelio arrives in time to stop the fight, but in doing so finds out the reason, and is about to murder Raffael, when the local preacher arrives to tell Stiffelio the congregation are awaiting his sermon. In a change of heart, Stiffelio reminds Lina that in order to avoid detection he was under a false name when they first met and it was that name on the marriage document. She is therefore free to go and marry who she wants. She tells him that she was tricked into the meeting with Raffael and has always loved Stiffelio. Stanker appears with Raffael’s blood on his hand having done the deed he intended. The local preacher tells Stiffelio he has to appear before the people, but when he does so, he finds the bible has opened at the parable of the unfaithful wife and the forgiveness she receives. The local zealot preacher is furious at Stiffelio’s interpretation of the bible as the opera ends. In this film made from two performances on the stage of the Royal Opera House in London in 1993, Stiffelio is sung by José Carreras, the tenor having made the only previous studio sound recording. He is ideal both in appearance and vocally for the sanctimonious preacher, and proves the foil for the outgoing soprano of Catherine Malfitano as Lina. Elijah Moshinsky’s production is traditional in the best sense of the word, capturing the rather claustrophobic world in which the action takes place. Stanker is solidly sung by Gregory Yurisich, with Gwynne Howell as the local preacher, Jorg. Indeed, it is one of those rare performances that is not only vocally ideal, but features singers whose age, personality and appearance make the characters totally believable. The film also reminds us of the great input that the conductor, Edward Downes, made to opera in London, the orchestra being in superb form. One of the best opera DVDs you will find.

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