Verdi’s Stiffelio in Stockholm

Verdi, Stiffelio : at the Royal Opera in Stockholm, 16.4.2011 (GF)

Directed by Tobias Theorell
Sets, costumes and masks by Magdalena Åberg
Lighting design by Ellen Ruge
Choreography by Roine Söderlund
Dramaturgy by Stefan Johansson and Katarina Aronsson


Stiffelio – Lars Cleveman
Lina – Lena Nordin
Stankar – Marcus Jupither / Karl Magnus Fredriksson
Jorg – Michael Schmiedberger
Federica – Karl Rombo
Dorotea – Sara Olsson

The Royal Opera Chorus and Orchestra / Pier Giorgio Morandi

Verdi encountered a lot of trouble with this opera. The story in itself was controversial: A married, protestant priest, Stiffelio, suspects and eventually finds proof that his wife is having a secret affair. Stiffelio insists upon revenge but in the final scene, when he preaches in front of the congregation he opens his bible at John 8:7 and reads He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. This opens his eyes and he pardons his wife. The censors intervened and forced the composer and his librettist Piave to make substantial changes and remove all references to the bible. The premiere in Trieste was well received but Verdi soon withdrew the opera and recycled great parts of it in Aroldo. Stiffelio became the forgotten Verdi opera until an incomplete score surfaced in 1968. I heard and saw the work at the Metropolitan last year and found it rather dull but with music of great beauty and dramatic thrust. It was with some apprehension I went to the Royal Opera to see its first performance ever in Scandinavia, the word JESUS in cross-stitch red letters on the curtain giving a rather forbidding impression, but I was taken by surprise: from the first bar of the overture to the glorious but rather abrupt final scene, the drama grabbed me by the throat and never let go.

Musically I knew what to expect, and since Stiffelio was written immediately before the three operas that started his second phase as an opera composer – Rigoletto, Trovatore and Traviata – it’s no wonder that many features of the mature Verdi are to be found here as well. Perhaps there are no show-stoppers like La donna è mobile, Di quella pira or Libiamo, but there is a lot of catchy music and the structure is grander, liberated from the formulae recitative, aria and cabaletta. There are few traditional arias but instead long scenas where the borderlines between recitative, parlando, arioso and cantabile are more or less erased, pointing forward to the masterworks of his Indian summer.

The noted Verdian Pier Giorgio Morandi had obviously also fallen in love with this score and conveyed his love to the Royal Orchestra. Here was Italianate playing with an incandescence and glow that was literally visible. The intensity and force was retained in a reading that would have out-Toscaninied Toscanini, had the old maestro ever conducted the work. I have heard Morandi on many occasions, but never with such white heat. If there was a hero in the opera house this evening, it was certainly the Bologna-born master, who since 2004 is principal guest conductor in Stockholm.

The production is sparse but telling: a number of beams that can be lowered or raised, indicating indoor settings, combined with some furniture; in the churchyard scene, simple crosses at various levels. No need for over-explicitness, seems to be Magdalena Åberg’s credo: less is more, it leaves room for the onlookers’ imagination and puts the focus on the characters and their relations and conflicts. To the cast-list Tobias Theorell has added Stiffelio’s and Lina’s two children, mute roles but wonderfully responsive, and they contribute greatly to elevating from a religious/ethical conflict on an abstract level to an individual family tragedy, mirrored first in their expectancy when they are waiting for their father to return from his missionary journey to their despair and compassion with their mother when Stiffelio has denounced her. Theorell has generally, together with his wonderful cast, created a gallery of characters with individuality. The drama was further heightened when director Birgitta Svendén announced before the overture that due to vocal trouble no less than two of the house’s best baritones would appear on stage during this premiere: Marcus Jupither acting and miming Stankar with Karl Magnus Fredriksson, in formal dress and sight-reading from the vocal score, delivering the vocals. This no doubt added a certain thrill.

Lars Cleveman, due to sing Tannhäuser at Bayreuth this summer, has added another dramatic character to his gallery of roles. His Andrea Chenier last year was powerful but lacked the poetry so sorely needed in Come un bel di di maggio. His Stiffelio is much more inclined to scale down for the softer moment without losing the intensity. In Lena Nordin he has a worthy partner, as intense as Cleveman but also vulnerable and subservient. In both looks and timbre she has much of Maria Callas – and I can’t praise a soprano higher than that. Her aria in act I, sung with restrained glow, is masterly.

It was a strange experience to watch Karl Magnus Fredriksson, cool and expressionless, give voice to the indisposed Marcus Jupither’s high-voltage acting. But his voice expressed to perfection the feelings of Stankar. Fredriksson may not have the tremendous volume of Jupither – who has? – but few baritones today surpass him in expressiveness and nuances. In duet with Lena Nordin, Verdi’s music glowed as rarely before. Michael Schmiedberger, black-voiced and powerful, was a towering Jorg, while Jonas Degerfeldt struggled to make something out of Raffaele’s cardboard character.

I shouldn’t forget the Royal Opera Chorus who, like their colleagues in the pit, wholeheartedly let themselves go in the important mass-scenes and crowned their achievement in the ecstatic finale.

If there were any justice in this world, opera lovers should make a pilgrimage to Stockholm to experience this forgotten masterpiece. And it is topical as well with sectarianism flourishing from time to time.

Göran Forsling