Stiffelio is a GREAT opera. Lost for close to a century, it has been slow in making its way into the standard repertoire, but productions such as this one should further its cause as well as its reputation. This is frankly one of the best opera productions I've ever seen. Every facet is top of the line, from the orchestra to the singers to the stage production to the video direction. Prepare to be overwhelmed. And, if you've never seen or heard Stiffelio before, prepare to welcome a new opera into the canon of Verdi masterpieces.
Stiffelio, about a Protestant minister who learns that his wife has cheated on him while he was away, has a story that is closer to verismo opera than most of the other operas of that time in that it deals with regular people rather than kings and queens, gods and goddesses. Like verismo, the emotion is often pushed to a level that is melodramatic, even larger than life. Yet even those moments have the core of truth to them, because Stiffelio's characters are never less, or more, than human, defined as they are by human weakness. This is a very powerful opera, Bergmanesque(as in Ingmar) in that it deals with the conflict between the spiritual life and the earthly one. This juxtaposition is never more beautifully realized than at the end of act two, where Stiffelio has just learned of his wife's indiscretion and is prepared to kill her but is stayed by the voices of the congregation emanating from the church, singing about forgiveness. I was overpowered, and I'm not even a religious person! Then again, neither was Verdi, yet the great humanist was able to put aside his anticlericalism and create an astonishing vision of a man finding redemption through faith. This has always been a Verdian specialty, scenes where private agonies clash with public responsibilities. Probably the greatest example comes late in act three of Otello, where Otello has just finished spying on Iago and Cassio and is tormented with jealousy and thoughts of violence just as the horns signal the approach of the heralds. Trust me when I say that the scene I just described from Stiffelio is in that same league.
The music of this opera, which was written between Luisa Miller and Rigoletto, shows the composer's progress. There is very little standard recitative, it's almost all through composed, with fewer arias and more concerted music than the norm, creating an undeviating dramatic flow. Many scenes show the richness in orchestration that would characterize his later operas. Also, this is one of the few Verdi operas where the tenor character is the most demanding role. The uniqueness of Stiffelio might tempt some to write it off as a curiosity, yet the power of the story and the passion of the music demand that it be taken seriously as one of Verdi's most beautifully realized triumphs.
"Taken seriously" certainly applies to this production. The commitment of all involved is palpable. James Levine's orchestra plays with an extraordinary Verdian fervor and flair, yet is never less than subtle in the more pensive, nuanced moments. This lesser known score couldn't be in more capable hands. Under Levine, Stiffelio becomes an emotional powerhouse, it sounds like an opera that belongs in the same class as the more oft performed Verdi masterworks of that period. On to the singers. Placido Domingo gives a performance of Otelloesque intensity. Here is a singer who cares more about dramatic authenticity than strict vocal beauty, and his voice, while lovely, is also savage and tumultuous, just like his acting. Domingo has always excelled in the more angst-ridden roles, Don Jose, Cannio, Otello, the difference here being that Stiffelio offers an opportunity to explore the dawning of wisdom as well, and redemption, and Domingo accepts the challenge. I wasn't familiar with Sharon Sweet, our Lina, prior to watching this. I understand her career at the Met was shortlived. Still, it's easy to see why she demanded so much enthusiasm during her brief period in the spotlight, her singing is explosive yet also beautiful and, dare I say it, sweet. She is also a compelling dramatic actress, her wayward, fatalistic wife, the catalyst for this tragedy, is never less than a sympathetic character. Vladimir Chernov matches the tenor and soprano's intensity as Stankar, Lina's father, the tragic counterpart to Stiffelio, his foil if you will, who yields to the same impulse to violence that initially drives Stiffelio, unlike Stiffelio he only yields to the power of forgiveness after sating his need for bloodshed. Paul Plishka has a smaller role as Jorg, but no less important, since he functions as Stiffelio's conscience, his voice of reason. His stoic compassion is mesmerizing. Regarding Giancarlo del Monaco's production, this is an advertisement for tradtional productions when they are done well. The dark, brooding sets, while effective at setting the mood of the piece, are also light on abstraction, on symbols, they allow the singers and the music to impart the opera's profundity. The settings are elaborate and in their own way as essential to the performance's success as the singers and orchestra. Brian Large's video direction is as polished and cinematic and as unintrusive as ever, using closeups during moments of extreme emotional distress but also pulling back his camera when necessary to allow the viewer to take it all in. I've never seen a Met broadcast look better.
One final note. I persist in objecting to this opera's overture. I don't approve of cuts in most instances, particularly in operas that are under two hours, but if I were ever to consider making a cut to any score, this overture would have to be one of the first I would consider. For one thing, Stiffelio is a short, intimate opera, close to a chamber piece in some respects, so a ten minute overture seems inappropriate. Second, although the overture does use motifs from the actual score, the texture and pacing of the piece are too jaunty and therefore a poor match for the subject matter and mood of the opera itself. It sounds more like something Donizetti would have written for one of his lighter operas, it has a standard bel canto feel to it whereas Stiffelio is one of those operas that does its best to break free of bel canto conventions. Basically, Stiffelio's overture is unworthy of the man who just prior to that wrote the brilliant prelude to Luisa Miller and the stirring overture to La Battaglia di Legnano. More than that, it is unworthy of the opera. Despite all that, Levine and his orchestra give a spirited reading. I'm certainly not about to allow a weak overture spoil what is otherwise a beautiful opera and a magnificent production and an overwhelming viewing experience. Nor should you.