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Giuseppe VERDI (1813–1901)
Stiffelio - Dramma lirico in three acts (1850)
Stiffelio, Ahasuerian preacher – Plácido Domingo (tenor)
Lina, his wife, Stankar’s daughter – Sharon Sweet (soprano)
Stankar, an old colonel and count of the Empire – Vladimir Chernov (baritone)
Raffaele von Leuthold, a nobleman – Peter Riberi (tenor)
Jorg, another preacher – Paul Plishka (bass)
Federico di Frengel, Lina’s cousin – Charles Anthony (tenor)
Dorotea, Lina’s cousin – Margaret Lattimore (mezzo)
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus/James Levine
rec. Metropolitan Opera House, November 1993
Production: Giancarlo del Monaco
Set and Costume Design: Michael Scott
Lighting Design: Gil Wechsler
A Metropolitan Opera Television Production
Producers: Louisa Briccetti; Daniel Anker
Video Director: Brian Large
Audio Producer: Jay David Saks
Picture Format : NTSC/COLOUR/4:3; Region Code 0 (Worldwide); Sound formats: PCM Stereo – DTS 5.1 – Dolby Digital 5.1; Menu Language: English;
Subtitles: Italian (original language), English, German, French, Spanish, Chinese
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 00440 073 4288 [116:00]


If you accept that there is such a thing as a crackingly good conventional production then this is undoubtedly one of that genre. What is offered is conventional but provocative staging, great sets and lighting, music pacing and delivery. Together they serve to squeeze all the emotions and extract stimulating singing. No, it is not perfect, but for me, a conventional old soul, this DVD comes very close.

James Levine conducts an opening prelude that in places is almost ‘mannered’. He plainly and rightly enjoys bathing in the reflected glory from an orchestra that delivers a remarkable clarity of sound – and there are no exceptions to that. For ninety-nine per cent of the time the orchestra supports the singers marvellously, now pianissimo, now forte. The only time they become just a little carried away is in the great double aria of Act I for Domingo (Stiffelio) and Sweet (Lina). For the rest they are tightly disciplined with excellent dynamics.

To digress for one moment, the accompanying booklet contains various photographs including one of a very energetic and flamboyant Levine. Fascinating because, watch him during the prelude and for the most part this is a seriously relaxed conductor who knows just how good his orchestra is and can stand there just flicking his baton – and for much of the time with that hint of a smile and evident enjoyment.

This is one of Verdi’s rarely produced operas. Indeed one he himself ‘re-worked’ after its initial failure when it became Aroldo. It was asking much in the 1850s to think that the censor would accept a plot based on a small religious sect whose leader (Stiffelio) returns to find his wife (Lina) has had a fling with one of his flock (Raffaele); whose right hand man (Jorg) identifies to him the wrong man (Federico) as the seducer; whose father-in-law kills the correct seducer; who himself is wracked by, and does not resolve, the conflict of priestly forgiveness and personal grief. Throw in love letters burnt, an assignation letter destroyed, a suicide note and an on-stage divorce. Add that the opera story is not the clearest; there is no opening chorus; the closing scene has little melody and that there is no conventional youthful tenor/soprano love-match worked out on stage. On the other hand there is a high level of emotional realism. No way would a catholic censor be happy with that – any more than the audience. So it proved and the opera accordingly disappeared for about a century until a revival in the 1960s.

Whilst watching, listening and thinking about that, another digression is to play ‘Spot that tune’. How many motifs or musical effects can you spot which appear in Verdi’s other works? I was going to write “Answers please on a postcard to the editor” but times have moved on since that phrase was in regular use so to avoid any difficulties: no answers and no email. Just listen and enjoy it.

It would be impossible not to enjoy and appreciate Domingo’s vocal power and stage charisma: perfect casting. Vocally he lights the stage with that totally distinctive voice which carries to every corner. This event was recorded some 14 years ago when his voice was at its peak sporting a full yet so smooth sound, ringingly clear, authoritative and with excellent enunciation. This is not a ‘Stand and Deliver’ performance. Domingo leads with strong acting skills and emphatic inter-action with ‘his flock’.

I wish that I had the same enthusiasm for Sharon Sweet (Lina). I must be careful not to cross the line of political correctness here. Whilst she is not a sylph-like soprano she does have a powerhouse of a voice. That is fine but whilst she can produce a smooth cream-laden sound in middle and lower register, and a delightful forte on high, when that forte becomes fortissimo, there is a harshness that I do not find comfortable. In the opening sextet she is almost competitive in what appears to be her delivery of maximum volume with consequential loss of tone. As the scene progresses and the volume is reined back there is serious beauty of tone to be heard. So it also proves in her opening aria of Act II and again in her emotionally devastating plea to her (ex)husband to listen to her not as (ex)husband but as her priest.

Vladimir Chernov, a Metropolitan favourite, sings the role of Stankar – not the easiest for demonstrating versatility because Stankar spends most of the opera in a state of irritation if not high anger. This is a ramrod straight-backed acting performance as an old colonel with a finely focused voice that is firm, forthright and fulsome. His solo almost lyrical cantabile at the opening of Act III is a joy to listen to and watch. Here we have vocal and dramatic versatility with strong dynamics from a man in “… a rapt ecstasy that comes close to madness …”. It is depicted perfectly. His interplay with other characters is dramatically and vocally excellent.

Jorg is sung by Paul Plishka – at the date of this production progressing towards becoming a veteran bass at the Metropolitan. This is an example of strong casting with a solidly professional performance of a comparatively small part. My only reservation relates to a touch of vibrato, or too much vibrato, on sustained notes. However he delivers the powerful sound of gloom for the opening and, at various points in the opera, vocally reminds Stiffelio of the power of the church with his almost sepulchral tone.

Peter Riberi is the seducer Raffaele, confusingly also referred to as Leuthold in the libretto. It is a small part and when singing alone, Riberi seems to me to have a tendency to shout his notes - making it difficult to appreciate the tone produced.

Margaret Lattimore despatches the role of Dorotea with a clear sparkling sound. Look out for Charles Anthony singing Federico di Frengel. A tiny part which he sings effortlessly. An artist who in 2006 completed fifty-two consecutive seasons at the Met. An astonishingly solid professional career.

The chorus are on fine form and very noticeable for the effectiveness of their ‘church choristry’: the psalm at the end of Act II produced with just the right pathos and the final brief repeated sounds in the Church in the last scene.

I particularly enjoyed the sets and costume design. It opens with a long table across the stage and a screen behind with five openings with doors. Whilst we are in Stankar’s castle hall, it takes no great leap of the imagination to see an altar table and a chancel screen. The glass doors occasionally distract in that one can see movement behind them. However they are a perfect place for Riberi to stand to overhear the ‘divorce’ scene between Domingo and Sweet and for us to see him. The ancient, almost mystic graveyard with atmospheric lighting sets Act II perfectly whilst the gothic Church of the last scene with its massive pulpit is an ideal setting for Domingo’s final, and unresolved, man/priest conflict.

The camera direction is superb. At no point did I find myself wishing to look at a different singer or at a different part of the stage or to have a general view or a close up. They all followed seamlessly and appropriately for the events on stage. This is camera direction or shot-cutting by a very sympathetic and understanding team.

My only criticism of the slim booklet is the repetition of the track-titles and characters first as a simple list and second with that list plus a synopsis. But let me not cavil at comparative trivia. This is a thunderingly good DVD of a splendid conventional production that brings out the many facets of one of Verdi’s lesser known operas.

Robert McKechnie

see also Review by Robert Farr October RECORDING OF THE MONTH




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