A traveling minister’s wife commits adultery while he’s on the road carrying the word of God to a distant flock. Arriving home, he quickly realizes he has been betrayed and vows murderous revenge against his rival — no matter what the Bible says. Sounds like the story arc for a cheap summer movie that’s guaranteed to rouse the ire of American religious groups, right? Maybe. But in this case, it’s Giuseppe Verdi’s ill-fated and rarely heard opera, “Stiffelio,” brilliantly performed in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall last week by the Washington Concert Opera.
If “Stiffelio” might generate controversy today, imagine the situation in 1850, the year Verdi attempted to premiere the work in Trieste. In those days, what is now modern Italy was a series of small city-states and fiefdoms ruled either by capricious absentee landlords or by stern, stone-faced clerics — none of whom wanted controversy from the arts, particularly after the boisterous pro-democracy uprisings throughout Europe in 1848. Verdi stubbornly refused to conform his artistic sensitivities to this environment and was frequently in hot water with the censors as a result. Never so much as with “Stiffelio,” which irritated princes and clerics alike.
After a few bowdlerized performances of the opera, he withdrew it and retooled it as something called “Guglielmo Wellingrode,” transforming his cleric into a German politician to quiet the church, upset, among other things, at his married clergyman. This version also failed to gain traction, however, and the composer eventually turned it into “Aroldo,” which premiered in Rimini in 1857. Furious at all the trouble “Stiffelio” had caused him, he ordered all remaining copies of the original score destroyed.
And that was that.
Until 1960, when scholars discovered, in the Naples Conservatory archives, copies of the original “Stiffelio” and “Guglielmo Wellingrode” that had survived Verdi’s bonfire. The newly rescued opera was staged by the Teatro Regio in Parma 1968, and tenor Jose Carreras made a recording of it in 1979.
By the mid-1990s, Sir Edward Downes had come out with a new performing version that was mounted by the Royal Opera House Covent Garden and by the Metropolitan Opera. The latter production featured Placido Domingo in the title role. Though still not very well known to the average Verdi aficionado, “Stiffelio” deserves to be trotted out a bit more often in an opera world that long ago got its fill of “Rigoletto,” “La Traviata” and “Otello.”
“Stiffelio’s” tuneful, insistent overture is a wonderful curtain-raiser. The opera’s instrumentation, particularly its creative deployment of winds, a small string ensemble, jagged beat patterns and pizzicato, is highly original and modern. Its memorable vocal solos and ensembles run the gamut of human emotions. Its controversial plot, which challenges traditional Christianity to live up to its name, resonates perhaps more powerfully than ever in the 21st century.
Appearing just twice a year, the Washington Concert Opera, now in its 15th season, is popular with local opera buffs for putting on concert versions of neglected operas. This production, under the able baton of the troupe’s delightful new artistic director, Antony Walker, proved to be one of its most interesting efforts to date, crisply performed and passionately realized even without all the costumes and scenery. The large orchestra performed the work as if the musicians had been playing together regularly all year. The chorus was always on target, and the singers had an understanding and empathy with one another that is often sadly lacking in fully mounted productions.
As the unfortunate Lina, Stiffelio’s erring wife, Chilean soprano Veronica Villarroel subbed for the previously scheduled Christine Goerke, who had withdrawn because of illness. A favorite of Placido Domingo’s and a regular fixture with the Washington Opera and the Met, Miss Villarroel has a burnished voice that navigated Verdi’s cruel vocal challenges — which not infrequently forced her to dive from her highest to her deepest notes within a bar or three — with great skill and passion.
In the taxing title role, Argentine tenor Luis Lima did not put on his best performance, but it was perhaps one of his bravest. Plagued, apparently, by either a sinus or a respiratory ailment, his throat was dry and his voice incapable of much nuance. This forced him to sing flat out most of the time in order to get the notes out into the auditorium. Clearly frustrated but unwilling to disappoint his audience or let this tiny company down, he gave it his best anyway, revealing even under duress enough of his powerful instrument to make one wish for a return engagement when he is in better health.
As Lina’s vengeful father, Stankar, baritone William Stone was a sensation, particularly in his Act III solo turns. A singer of impressive range and expression, Mr. Stone gave a beautifully balanced, thrilling reading of Verdi’s demanding arias.
In the supporting role of Jorg, bass Daniel Sumegi also excelled with a crisp low range that was not buried by the other singers. In smaller roles, tenor Robert Baker was a suitably amoral Raffaele. Tenor Lonel Woods and mezzo-soprano Barbara Quintiliani were fine in virtual cameos as Federico and Dorothea.
A self-effacing maestro Walker opened the evening’s second half with a low-key plea for more generous donations to keep this company going next season. The nationwide downturn in donations to the arts has been felt keenly in post-September 11 Washington, as evidenced by the demise this season of the Washington Chamber Symphony as well as Le Theatre Neon, the French-language theater troupe that put on its last performances this spring. Area music buffs who are still gainfully employed should try to loosen their purse strings this summer and fall. Otherwise, Washington’s amazing musical and theatrical riches will be in danger of being further diminished.
Meanwhile, Mr. Walker will return to town this summer to conduct the Wolf Trap Opera in performances of another rare gem, Jean-Philippe Rameau’s “Dardanus,” at the Barns, opening July 18.