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VERDI: Stiffelio

spacer Guanqun, Solis; Aronica, Frontali, Mangione, Andguladze; Orchestra and Chorus of Teatro Regio di Parma, Battistoni. Production: Montavon. Unitel Classica 723008 "Tutto Verdi" 15, 117 mins. (opera), 10 mins. (bonus), subtitled


This Stiffelio in Parma's complete Verdi series is both smart and modest. Guy Montavon's production emphasizes the austerity and the intrusive pressures of a puritanical Protestant community. In a rare display of consensus, conductor Andrea Battistoni pursues similar aims, relying on tight ensemble work and tense understatement.

Verdi's taut little shocker about a cuckolded clergyman was composed in 1850, the year Hawthorne published The Scarlet Letter, and was immediately banned by censors. While the two works share a theme of sexual transgression in a theocratic setting, the opera (based on a French play that appeared in 1849) focuses on the victim rather than the sinners. As a study in jealousy, the title role is sometimes played full throttle as a quasi-Otello, while conductors have applied the early-Verdi treatment, with brash climaxes and hard-driving rhythms. Both those extremes are avoided here, with a more introspective result. Battistoni's refined, economical reading of the score is strongly flavored with dark instrumental effects — plaintive or warning sighs from cellos, bassoon, English horn. The conductor sometimes even slows the cabalettas and strettos, and the singers are persuasive rather than forceful.

Roberto Frontali generates the most heat, in the blustery role of Stiffelio's outraged father-in-law, Stankar. The veteran baritone summons concentrated force in his climactic aria, "Lina, pensai che un angelo," and even puts some slight signs of fatigue to good expressive use. Chinese soprano Guanqun Yu, a recent Met debutante in Il Trovatore, is splendid as a guilt-ridden Lina, deploying a warm Italianate timbre to plaintive effect. 

Tenor Roberto Aronica phrases Stiffelio's lines intelligently and with appealing brightness, portraying a mature clergyman somewhat low in affect. A lack of heft in the lower register seems to limit his dramatic options, but the prevailing restraint in his portrayal — more sorrow than anger — suggests a deliberate choice.

The production deprives the hero of catharsis by undercutting both his vehemence and the libretto's presumed happy ending. In the church scene at the end — as elsewhere, with the faithful congregation almost oppressively dominant — the pained clergyman draws inspiration from the gospel story of Christ and the adulteress; but if Lina is forgiven, in Montavon's staging she is also deserted. Stiffelio rushes off alone, apparently fleeing his marriage and the ministry. 

There's no trace of nature in Francesco Calcagnini's severe but tasteful stage sets, while color is tightly rationed in his costume designs and put to symbolic purposes: red for sin, white for penitence, against the congregation's prevailing gray-and-black Mennonite garb. Other symbols reflect the dominance of the Bible, rather than sacraments, in this severe brand of Protestantism — a gigantic book lying open in the church scene and, as a fixture in all three acts, a stage floor engraved with text, suggesting that action here is based, literally, on scripture. spacer


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