“Stiffelio” dates from 1850, just before “Rigoletto” in the Verdi chronology — in other words, just before the composer achieved international recognition as the supreme creator of romantic Italian opera. The plot involved a Protestant clergyman undergoing a crisis of faith brought on by his wife’s adultery; to nobody’s surprise, it ran into censorship problems. Since the work was set in its own time, and lacked the expected steamy love duets, it ran into audience problems as well.
After nine years of trying, the Music Center Opera has finally given Verdi his due, in a performance beautifully designed, marvelously sung and, above all, superbly conducted. Never mind that the work accorded this superb treatment is itself virtually unknown in the Verdi canon. Recognition of the high qualities of “Stiffelio” is, like this level of performance, long overdue. Verdi ditched the score, cannibalizing most of it for another opera (the inferior “Aroldo”); a usable copy of the original was first discovered as recently as 1960. Its growing popularity as a superbly crafted, powerful score (with some extraordinarily effective choral and ensemble writing) dates only from then. The Los Angeles production comes from Britain’s Royal Opera, where it premiered in January 1993 (released on Pioneer Video with Jose Carreras in the title role).
Unlike Verdi’s usual dashing, brash tenor heroes, Stiffelio is a middle-aged figure, probably starting to gray around the temples, but of course with the great Verdian ring in his vocal line: a perfect role, in other words, for Placido Domingo. Elena Prokina as his guilty (but eventually forgiven) wife forced her appealing but slender thread of tone now and then on opening night but created a sympathetic personage even so. Vladimir Chernov cut a splendid figure as her stern and troubled father.
More heroic than any of these, however, was conductor Sir Edward Downes, who had been instrumental in piecing together Verdi’s score after its rediscovery, and who also led the Royal Opera production. Under his probing baton, the opera surged irresistibly forward, erasing in a magnificent sweep memories of the nine seasons of merely obedient leadership that has been Verdi’s lot at the Music Center.
Verdi’s original plot had been set in the unlikely venue of Salzburg, most Catholic of all German-speaking cities. Michael Yeargan’s observant set designs move it to a more believable modern setting, a small God-fearing town in the American Midwest, subtly colored by Paul Pyant’s lighting, and nicely animated in David Edwards’ sensible recreation of Elijah Moshinsky’s original production. One detail might raise eyebrows, however: Did Midwestern folks settle their quarrels with dueling swords?
Justice has finally been done, therefore, not only to “Stiffelio” but to the sights and sounds of Verdi overall. The Music Center Opera is off and running.