Magazine article The Spectator

Force for Good

Magazine article The Spectator

Force for Good

Article excerpt


Force for good


Holland Park

Stiffelio has been one of my favourite lesser-known Verdi operas since I saw its first revival in modern times in Parma at the end of 1968. It was an almost singalong audience, highly discriminating about the virtues of the singers, and quite willing to be disapproving of a performer the moment that he or she departed from the standards previously set. In the intervals there was local wine from the barrel. In the afternoon I had visited Verdi's birthplace in Le Roncole, climbed up and looked round the room whose walls were covered with tributes from Verdi societies; and had put my hands on the keys of the church organ that the ten-year-old Verdi had been appointed to play. The small-town ambience still seems to me overpoweringly present in his works until the great trio of masterpieces that begins with Rigoletto in 1851, the year after Stiffelio; and though it's now a banality to say that, and to rebut it, I have usually found myself enjoying performances of the earlier works that aren't starry and don't take place in the world's great opera houses more than ones that, as soon as they contain big names, immediately come to seem to be vehicles for them.

That is one reason why Opera Holland Park's production of Stiffelio is so intensely enjoyable. As one now expects from that institution, the performance is in all ways fully professional, but with the rare exception few people would go for the specific performers rather than for the work. I now have high expectations of the productions, and have yet to be disappointed. The musical standards both of Stiffelio and of L'Arlesiana earlier in the season have easily equalled many of the things I've seen in the last season in London's two opera houses. The casts seem to consist mainly of singers on the way up, or veterans (a mildly coded term).

In this tale of adulterous passion, where the emphasis is on the betrayed husband and his seduced wife, the vocal interest is shared between them but her father has a still larger role, and on the whole more impressive music. As so often Verdi seems happier writing ducts for a soprano and a baritone rather than soprano and tenor: interesting that he didn't take the final step, an obvious one, one would have thought, and have baritones as his romantic leads. But then though he was interested in passionate relationships, he was more interested in the forces, cither within the parties concerned or from outside of them, that undermine those relationships. …

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