Tuesday 3 June 2014

Learning to love Lina - an encounter with Nelly Miricioiu

Nelly Miricioiu
Nelly Miricioiu
In 1998, the London-base Romanian soprano Nelly Miricioiu appeared for the first time with Chelsea Opera Group in Rossini's Semiramide, I was there and can testify to it being a terrific performance; in fact Semiramide was a role which Miricioiu had been performing in Europe. It was to be the beginning of a long and profitable relationship with Miriociu making an an almost annual appearance with Chelsea Opera Group. On Sunday 8 June at Queen Elizabeth Hall, Brad Cohen will be conducting a performance of Verdi's Stiffelio with Miricioiu as Lina and Peter Auty as Stiffelio.

Over the years Nelly Miricioiu has explored a great deal of repertoire with Chelsea Opera Group, reprising roles she has performed abroad thus giving London a chance to hear them as well as exploring new roles. Highlights have included Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur, Donizetti's Maria Padilla and Miricioiu's role debut as Verdi's Lady Macbeth in the original version of Macbeth. This year the choice was again on Verdi.

Nelly says that she and the orchestra went through a lot of music to choose the opera. Nelly favoured Aroldo but this was a work which Chelsea Opera Group had already performed so finally they decided on Verdi's Stiffelio. Following the original suggestion, Nelly went on-line and found Covent Garden's performance of the opera with Catherine Malifitano and Jose Carreras. Once she had listened to it she was smitten.

Verdi wrote Stiffelio in 1850, following on from Luisa Miller. It was a brave choice. Based on a French play, it is a remarkably naturalistic plot about a pastor, Stiffelio, and his wife Lina who has been unfaithful to him. She repents and Stiffelio forgives her. The plot caused problems from the start, with much interference from the censors and the work has a complicated editorial history. Verdi eventually withdrew the opera, because of the censorship problems in Italy, and the opera Aroldo was created re-using sections of the music from Stiffelio with a new libretto. Performances according to Verdi's original wishes only started in the 1990's and in 1993 Covent Garden produced the work in a new edition by Sir Edward Downes.

Despite this production, the opera has not had a significant performance history in the UK. Nelly's view is that despite the fine production, the public did not really understand the work. In Lina, Verdi has created a highly complex character but, unlike Violetta in La Traviata there is little glamour in the setting in Stiffelio. Instead of a Parisian demi-monde in La Traviata, Stiffelio explores in concentrated and intense fashion the problems in the marriage of a Lutheran pastor with a final scene in the pastor's church.

Chatting to Nelly, in the interval of rehearsal for Stiffelio, she talks about the opera. Despite loving it, it took her a long time to find Lina. There were so many aspects to the character that were foreign to Nelly, Lina is the wife of a Calvinist Evangelist and has been unfaithful. At first Nelly was unsure whether to accuse her or to find her a victim. In fact, all the characters in Stiffelio are complex. Lina's father is distraught because he looked on Lina as an angel who has now fallen. Though, as Nelly wryly points out, it is difficult to be put on a pedestal (she goes on to talk about how this chimes in with her own personal experience). She also adds that being a preacher's wife could not be easy. Thankfully for us, Nelly feels that she has finally found a way into the character of Lina. And the opera's lack of glamour will even be reflected in Nelly's choice of frock for the evening.

Lina will be another addition to the gallery of Verdi's heroines that Nelly has portrayed. She cites Verdi and Donizetti as being her two favourite opera composers, and finds many links and influences from Donizetti in Verdi's writing. Nelly enjoys singing Verdi because the music suits her and her voice; not only does she feels she understands it and but she appreciates the way his writing is akin to that of Donizetti.

Her favourite Verdi role remains Luisa Miller, though she admits that there are some such as Leonore in Il Trovatore tha she finds less sympathetic. Nelly comments that she herself is very volcanic in temperament, and even in tranquillity is still dramatic so the more placid heroines do not appeal. Aida is another role about which Nelly admits to never being certain. She is also clear that it is the lyric roles which suit her, though in fact Lina goes towards the more dramatic.

Nelly is most enthusiastic about Chelsea Opera Group, talking about them as a family and saying she is grateful that the group is interested in doing operas which suit her, that they are doing repertoire that she wants to do and has not done at all.

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