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In Review > International

Stiffelio, Jérusalem 

Teatro Regio di Parma

In Review Parma Stiffelio hdl 118
Luciano Ganci, center, as Stiffelio in Parma
© Roberto Ricci

PARMA'S MAGNIFICENT Teatro Farnese is an inspiring venue for theatrical experimentation. Graham Vick’s Verdi Festival production of Stiffelio—designed by Mauro Tinti, choreographed by Ron Howell and seen on October 6—was as striking in its use of this vast wooden auditorium as Peter Greenaway’s Giovanna d’Arco a year earlier. The principal characters interacted on mobile platforms in the orchestra area, while the standing audience milled freely around them, observing gestures and facial expressions at close range and feeling the voices vibrate with an intensity that is rarely experienced in traditional frontal performances. 

Luciano Ganci is arguably Italy’s finest Verdi tenor, and his Stiffelio—portrayed here (in spite of his married status) as a charismatic Roman Catholic priest—was a consummate performance, combining mellow tone with crisp diction and a musical line of searing intensity. As his wife, Lina, Mexican soprano Maria Katzarava proved even more remarkable, exuding a rare sexual magnetism and displaying a voice of effortless power, beauty and flexibility, employed with impressive musicality and technical ease. She can modulate dynamics even in the highest register, although words were obscured somewhat by her intermediate vowel sounds. Baritone Francesco Landolfi was physically and vocally well suited to the warped personality of Stankar, Lina’s violent, interfering father. 

Guillermo García Calvo led Bologna’s Teatro Comunale Orchestra in one corner of the theater; the distant accompaniment highlighted the elemental preeminence of the voices. There were strong contributions from supporting singers (especially Emanuele Cordaro as Jorg) and the Teatro Comunale Chorus.

All this made for a musically exciting evening—albeit physically challenging for a standing audience whose average age was well over fifty—but not for a moving one. Director Vick glossed over many of the psychological and social specifics of Piave’s libretto. (The aristocratic status of Lina’s lover, Raffaele, played by Giovanni Sala, was blatantly ignored.) Thirty-six extras were engaged to illustrate the fierce conflict between the fanatical defence of traditional family values, represented in this staging by Stiffelio and his followers, and the more politically correct feminism and gender-neutrality of their opponents. This parallel plot, superimposed on the original dramaturgy, implicitly invited us to distance ourselves from Verdi’s central character: even Stiffelio’s final pardoning of Lina in church was made to seem a weakly cynical maneuver rather than a divinely inspired gesture. Vick underlined the hypocrisy governing the family relationships in the opera, but he betrayed similar double standards himself: the violence unleashed in the parallel plot appeared perniciously gratuitous, as if aimed at keeping the audience shackled to its basest instincts. It was the soaring potency of Verdi’s melodies that kept spirits high and hearts free from anger. 

In Review Parma Jerusalem lg 118 
Annick Massis, Michele Pertusi and Ramón Vargas in
Parma’s Jérusalem

© Roberto Ricci

THE IMPACT OF THE VOICES was less immediate in Hugo De Ana’s production of Jérusalem, seen at the Teatro Regio on October 8. But though the action unfolded entirely behind the proscenium arch—with a scrim filtering the lighting to evocative effect—this rarely heard work (a revision of I Lombardi), first heard at the Paris Opéra in 1847, appeared both theatrically alive and dramatically cogent. De Ana seeks truth through beauty rather than violence. The tableaux involving the Teatro Regio’s Chorus (superbly trained by Martino Faggiani) were clearly pictorial in inspiration but maintained an inner vitality even when the action slowed to a standstill. The stunning medieval Middle Eastern settings and costumes were enriched by symbols (conveyed through projections onto the scrim) that bridged the gap between our broader understanding of history (including its esoteric undercurrents) and Verdi’s more limited grasp of events. The atmosphere generated onstage was such that it was easy for the singers to enter into the spirit of the drama. 

Ramón Vargas lacks the very highest notes that Verdi inserted into the score for Gilbert Duprez; the relatively soft focus of the Mexican tenor’s voice made it difficult for him to dominate in ensembles, but the chivalric spirit of Gaston was felt in every phrase and every gesture. As Hélène, Annick Massis was not the fieriest of heroines, but she demonstrated how even a lightweight voice can make a telling effect in this music when projected with ease and flexibility. Her upper range and coloratura sounded as effortless as ever, and the dignity and sincerity of her stage presence were much appreciated. The bass role of Roger seemed ideally suited to Michele Pertusi in this phase of his career. His phrasing was both beautiful to listen to (the legato was splendid, though he largely eschewed portamento) and stirring in its eloquence. Pertusi conveyed all the torment of the hermit with the greatest economy of gesture and movement. The rest of the cast was fine—Pablo Gálvez’s Comte de Toulouse and Valentina Boi’s Isaure were particularly effective—and the Filarmonica Arturo Toscanini played with appropriate urgency under the well-paced leadership of Daniele Callegari. Only the Act III ballet was disappointing: Leda Lojodice’s choreography lacked éclat, as did the sixteen dancers engaged to perform it.  —Stephen Hastings 

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