OPERA / Covent Garden curate's egg: Nick Kimberley on the long-awaited British stage premiere of Verdi's Stiffelio

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The Independent Culture
OF THE operas Verdi wrote before Rigoletto, only Macbeth can claim a regular place in our opera houses, perhaps because of its Shakespearian origins. The rest are rarities, none more so than Stiffelio. If Verdi consigned it to the dustbin, why shouldn't we? But Verdi rejected Stiffelio (rejigging it as Aroldo) not because he was dissatisfied with what he wrote, but because he refused to tolerate the censors' changes. In 1850, there were problems in store for an Italian opera about a Protestant clergyman's troubled marriage.

The censors' clumsy emendations had one point in their favour: they at least acknowledged the subversiveness of opera. While the French play on which Stiffelio was based was permitted in the theatre, once it was taken into the opera house, it immediately became more threatening (compare Mozart and Figaro). Opera today rarely exposes those raw nerves, and Elijah Moshinsky's Covent Garden staging of Stiffelio, its first professional production in this country, does nothing to get under anyone's skin, except by default.

Like most of Verdi's operas, Stiffelio probes the divide between public and private. Foreshadowing Otello, the central character is a returning hero, publicly adored but unable to manage the details of his private life. He succumbs to jealousy, and only the Good Book restores him to his senses. Moshinsky is more at home with domestic intimacies, leaving the public elements - notably the chorus - sadly understated.

He relocates the opera in the American Midwest towards the end of the 19th century. This is not wildly enlightening but introduces some incidental colour - I think I spotted Buffalo Bill in a walk-on part. But Michael Yeargan's sets and Peter J Hall's costumes provide more of a decorative frame than any dramatic clarity.

Similarly, the way Moshinsky moves the singers on stage is the product, less of a particular theatrical language, than of the need to have them do something; bodies are disposed around the stage as if in spoken theatre. That works fine in the conversational opening scene but such naturalism barely suffices for the interior scenes, and becomes wholly inadequate for the pivotal graveyard scene, when singers and lighting both act as if we are still indoors.

The relative lack of vocal fireworks is, perhaps, a mark of Stiffelio's moral flaws, and if Jose Carreras no longer has the vocal eclat he had when he recorded the opera in 1979, his ingrained musicality compensates, and the voice has acquired extra baritonal timbres. His physical rigidity makes Stiffelio more of a sermoniser than is necessary, and he has a disturbing tendency to allow emphatic gestures - the sweep of an arm, the toss of a head - to distort the vocal line. Yet, as the ecstatic audience willingly testified, he is still a thrilling performer.

Catherine Malfitano struggles to make Lina, Stiffelio's wife, more complex than the usual bel canto paragon, but the occasional racked sob cannot elaborate a character that is little more than a sounding-board for men's problems. The voice has power and accuracy, undercut by a rush to grab the note as the tempo increases. Gregory Yurisich is unsubtle as her father, a Rigoletto in embryo: while the only problem with the conducting of Edward Downes (who also prepared this performing edition) is a touch too much subtlety - he is a refined Verdian, and a little more vulgarity wouldn't go amiss.

It's good to have the chance to see Stiffelio: its moral problems have by no means disappeared. But a less decorous production might get closer to their heart.

In rep to 18 Feb (071-240 1066)

(Photograph omitted)