Verdi’s Stiffelio in Aachen

Verdi’s opera, dating from his middle period, is infrequently performed. This is less attributable to its earlier problems with the censors who did not like the fact that it appeared to condone adultery and more to its awkward dramatic structure. Yet Verdi wrote some fine music for the piece and the drama centring around a pastor who discovers that his wife is having an affair contains some rich characterisation. In the theatre it makes, or should make, a significant impact.

Its performance at Aachen, while having some positive aspects, fell short in important respects. The main problem lay in the musical interpretation. The conductor Chanmin Chung treated the score as if it was early Verdi, with coarse-grained vigour, thus missing the inner resonance of the piece, its humanity and spirituality. And this approach was mirrored in Soon-Wook  Ka’s assumption of the title role. Let it be said at once that Mr Ka has a splendid tenor voice, well suited to the romantic Italian repertory, but he deployed it here in an almost unceasing fortissimo as if he were singing a heroic-tragic part such as Ernani, with little sensitivity to Christian virtues, for example, of humility. In short he made a very “unpastor-like” impression.

Confronted with this, some of the other singers must have felt a competitive need to err on the side of bravura singing. Certainly this was the case for Benjamin Bevan’s Stankar (Stiffelio’s father-in-law). He has an imposing stage presence and, to match, a strong baritone which nevertheless showed signs of strain by the end of the evening. Fortunately, Larisa Akbari, as the errant wife, resisted the temptation to overdo the melodramatic features of her role. Although there were one or two untidy moments in her vocalisation, this was an assured performance, her striking emotional outbursts alternating with some delicate, beautifully spun quieter reflections. Dramatically, she also vacillated convincingly between physical passion for her lover and remorse.

There were other positive aspects to the performance. Ivo Stanchev, as the staunch church elder Jorg rolled out his sonorous bass to good effect and Yu Shao made much of the lover’s brief appearances, revealing an attractive but not over-indulgent tenor voice. In the programme, Ewa Teilmans, the stage director, made some perceptive comments about the piece, and its contemporary relevance, but not all of these ideas came across sufficiently clearly in her production which remained two-dimensional in its portrayal of Angst. However, the designer Andreas Becker was responsible for an imaginative lean set, allowing the populace to observe proceedings through outsize windows at the edge of the stage and, at its rear, a space for pertinent tableaux and video images.