Monday 9 June 2014

Chelsea Opera Group in Stiffelio

Peter Auty
Peter Auty
Verdi Stiffelio: Chelsea Opera Group, Brad Cohen: Queen Elizabeth Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jun 09 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Strongly dramatic performance of Verdi's rare middle-period opera

Chelsea Opera Group returned the the South Bank Centre's Queen Elizabeth Hall on Sunday 8 June 2014 for their final opera of the season, Verdi's Stiffelio. Brad Cohen conducted, with Nelly Miricioiu as Lina, Peter Auty as Stiffelio, Gerard Quinn as Stankar, Andrew Rees as Raffaele, Sarah Champion as Dorotea, and Samuel Smith as Federico.

Verdi's opera was written in 1850, just after Luisa Miller and just before Rigoletto. From the outset the subject matter was unusual and controversial. Francesco Maria Piave based his libretto on a French play, but it was unheard of to put a Calvinist pastor on the operatic stage, a married one who divorces his wife! Censors altered the plot from the start and the opera eventually had a new (and unsatisfactory) libretto. Verdi withdrew it and re-used the score for Aroldo. Performances only became possible in the 20th century, there was a Covent Garden production in 1993 (conducted by Edward Downes, in his own edition of the opera). The score was published in 2003. But the opera remains relatively rare; Covent Garden last performed it in 2007 and few other UK opera companies have taken up the mantle.

In writing it, Verdi was determined to create a piece which broke the mould of conventional operatic writing. He used few standard forms (there is only one conventional cavatina and cabaletta), and much of the music in the second and third acts follows the emotional journey of the characters. As with some of his other operas like Il Trovatore and La Forza del Destino, Verdi is most interested in the emotional situations and development of his characters, rather than the logistics of the plot. This means that the three main characters are strongly drawn, Stiffelio the very upright preacher who discovers that implementing the word of God in your own life is difficult, the penitent Lina who has betrayed her husband Stiffelio and Lina's father Stankar  who is determined to preserve honour at all costs. There are some wonderfully strong scenes, but the plot itself is rather novelettish with an over reliance on hidden letters. As such, the opera is ideal for concert performance, particularly one as strong as this.

Nelly Miricioiu was singing the role of Lina for the first time and brought out the complexities in the character. In the first act, perhaps, Verdi has Lina doing a little to much moping. Miricioiu's performance of Lina's cantilena in the prayer and elsewhere was fully informed by her sympathy for the influences of Donizetti in Verdi's writing. The duet between :Lina and her father Stankar (Gerard Quinn) is one the less sympathetic of Verdi's father/daughter duets as Stankar is insistent that Lina keep quiet about her sin in order to preserve the family honour. Miricioiu was very affecting here and Quinn made a strong, but sympathetic Stankar. But there was an edge to Miricioiu's tone and a bite to her performance, which gave the character a stronger undertow, and you longed for her to let go.

Thankfully, in act two Verdi does give Lina some fireworks. After another prayer (!) over her mother's grave, Lina tells her former lover Raffaele exactly what she thinks of him, in a superb cabaletta in which Miricioiu let rip with her customary vivid style.

Peter Auty sang Stiffelio with a richly upholstered tone and a very full voice, this was a wonderfully confident and idiomatic assumption of one of Verdi's complex male roles. In act one, you can't help feel that Verdi and Piave stretch things a little too far and that surely Stiffelio should have worked out what was going on. No matter, Auty was highly sympathetic in the character's struggles concluding act one with a magnificent outburst of anger. But even in this first act, Verdi was moulding his material and Stiffelio's first interview with his wife (the aria Vidi dovunque gemere) has interjections from Lina which make the music develop in new and interesting ways. Both Auty and Miricioiu were fully alert to the real drama present in the music here and aided by Cohen really kept the tension

It is acts two and three which are the meat of the opera. After Lina's cabaletta, Stankar attempts to challenge Raffaele to a duel, but is stopped by Stiffelio and in the process Stiffelio learns the truth. Act two ends with a wonderful quartet for the four main characters (Lina, Stankar, Raffale, Stiffelio). But to call it simply a quartet is to not do justice to the flexibility of form, Verdi was here really working the material to suit the drama. Cohen and his cast (Miricioiu, Auty, Quinn and Andrew Rees as Raffaele) responded magnificently.

In act three, after a conventional but very moving aria for Stankar, powerfully sung by Quinn, we get to Stiffelio and Lina's second duet. Technically he is divorcing her and she acquiesces, it starts almost as a tenor aria but she takes it into other realms as Lina brings Stiffelio back to his priestly duty and confesses to him. This is an extraordinary passage and one that only works dramatically with the original libretto, Stiffelio has to be a minister. Auty and Miricioiu were fully equal to the challenge. The sense of drama implicit in Miricioiu's voice was well placed here, and she was magnificently paired by Auty who similarly created a fully rounded character. This was real music drama. In fact the act such strong powerful stuff you wondered how Verdi could follow it.

The answer is that he wisely kept the final scene short. Just a moving communal prayer, Stiffelio's moving reading of the passage of the woman taken in adultery, and the repetition of the work pardoned.

In Miriciou, Auty and Quinn Chelsea Opera Group had gathered three principals who were fully equal to Verdi's drama and gave us the maximum. In this they were ably supported by Brad Cohen's sympathetic account of Verdi's score. Miriciou was a dramatically sympathetic Lina, whilst Auty's performance of the challenging title role shows him to be developing into a fine Verdi performer.

The other smaller roles were all strongly cast, but Verdi does not give the other characters much to work with. David Soar made the most of Jorg's wonderfully dramatic opening of the opera, but thereafter the character is rather under-written. Still, Soar impressed in his sympathy and commitment, making what he was given work well. Andrew Rees was similarly short changed as Raffaele, whom Piave and Verdi render as virtually a cipher. I longed for Raffaele to get a moment on his own, but it never happened, even his death occurs off stage. Sarah Champion was Dorotea and Samuel Smith was Federico.

Verdi does not give the chorus that much to do in this opera. Their role is important, but he does not trust them with anything too elaborate. Still, the Chelsea Opera Group chorus performed with their familiar commitment and energy.

The orchestra was on very strong form. Verdi's orchestra writing in this period can still have an element of the routine oom-pah about it, but the Chelsea Opera Group Orchestra performed with sympathy and not a little sophistication. The opera has a long overture which gave the orchestra a great opportunity, and they treated us to some fine playing. There were some lovely incidental instrumental solos, and under Brad Cohen's watchful eye the whole opera had a nicely flexible flow it it.

Stiffelio was one of Verdi's most fascinating transitional pieces, and in Lina and Stiffelio he created a pair of his most complex characters. Chelsea Opera Group's performance did full justice to the work, with a level of casting and performance which would be the envy of many opera companies.

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