BELATED BIRTHDAY GREETINGS
STIFFELIO (New Production)
19 December 2013
©SAM H. SHIRAKAWA
1813 was an annus mirabilis for opera: both Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner were born that year. The Musical Theater of Krefeld and Mönchengladbach has been saluting the birthday boys in their 200th year of immortality with productions of their lesser known works.
What is surprising about the company's first-ever mounting of Verdi's Stiffelio (1850) is that the singers -- at least at the performance I attended -- are cast from the company's own ranks. An achievement in itself in a day and age when so-called world-class companies are hard put to assemble a vocally creditable Traviata.
Cutting to the chase, the home-grown leads were up to the challenge. I have occasionally wondered why exposure on a larger scale has eluded Kairschan Scholdybajew (as the cuckolded protestant clergyman Stiffelio) and Janet Bartolova (his erring wife Lina), but they appear content to carry out their assignments, stay close to their respective nests and maybe have some semblance of a life. They must be doing something right, because neither shows palpable signs of vocal aging, sounding as fresh and energetic as they did when I first heard them in Maria Stuarda over ten years ago.
For all their effort and the uniformly competent work from the other principals -- Stankar: Johannes Schwärsky, Raffaele: Michael Siemon Jorg: Hayk Dèinyan Federico von Frengel: Jerzy Gurzynski, Andrey Nevyantsev Dorotea: Eva Maria Günschmann, the serviceable production mounted by Helen Milkowsky fails to catch fire. Some diffident playing among members of the orchestra under Mikhail Kitson's direction may have had something to do with it. An off-night for the pipers.
But the quiddity of the deficit may ultimately lie within Verdi's score and its variorums. His 16th opera has been familiar primarily to Verdi freaks, while its predecessor Luisa Miller (1849), has become better known. and its successor Rigoletto (1851) turned into an instant smash. Neither fragments of its score nor its story of a dysfunctional marriage have caught the public's imagination. Verdi also reworked the score so many times that it ultimately became his 22d opera (Aroldo, 1857). Of course, the original work didn't have much chance of catching on, because it was rarely performed in Verdi's time, thanks to harassing censors, who forced librettist Francesco Maria Piave to alter the controversial story repeatedly. (Stiffelio finally arrived at the Met in October 2003. where it has received 23 performances to date.)
Net-net: the company works hard to bring Stiffelio to life, but the score lacks the signature melodies that grace Luisa Miller, Rigoletto and other works of Verdi's fecund middle period. Even at the premiere performances at the Met in 1993, the cast headlined by Placido Domingo fell short of fueling the music with vitality, possibly because Stiffelio is ultimately a stiff. A belated Happy Birthday Joey!
And to you too, Rick! The company has also mounted Wagner's Rienzi in a version that drops nearly half the music from the original score. Which amounts to a series of highlights that still runs nearly three hours. I long to experience a production of this promising work that presents only the music that's most frequently cut.