OPERA / Yes, it's your genuine neglected masterpiece: Stiffelio - Covent Garden; The turn of the Screw - ENO

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The Independent Culture
FAIRIES, Father Christmas and neglected masterpieces are the conceptual debris of adulthood. Sooner or later you stop believing in them, especially the masterpieces, which are rarely more than the invention of music publicists and second league performers. But the new, and first ever, production of Verdi's Stiffelio at Covent Garden looks suspiciously like the genuine article: certainly neglected, probably a masterpiece, and more effective than I'd have guessed from the one and only studio recording of the opera (Philips), which came out to critical acclaim some years ago but never persuaded me that it could hold the stage.

Historically, of course, it never has. Stiffelio only outlived its 1850 premiere in Trieste under a series of aliases. Its story, of a Lutheran clergyman with an adulterous wife and a nice line in last-minute forgiveness, wouldn't turn a hair on Brookside but it worried the 19th-century theatre censors who forced Verdi to restyle the piece as Guglielmo Wellingrode (a politician with adulterous wife) and then again as Aroldo (a 13th-century English crusader with adulterous wife), by which time the plot had become absurd and the music as disoriented as Verdi's sense of English history.

Stiffelio, meanwhile, lay fragmented and unrealisable until recent mansucript discoveries made it possible to piece the score back together - ultimately, in the new performing edition that Sir Edward Downes has made for Covent Garden and conducts himself, with a controlled strength that endorses his distinguished stature as a Verdian. It is a fairly short score - two hours of music - and concise in its response to a domestic narrative that closes in on the characters through small ensembles and duets; bourgeois theatre at its most confined. But this is a source of tension, and Downes keeps it running like an engine through to the final scene, which opens out into the nearest this opera gets to spectacle: the offer of forgiveness, made in church before Stiffelio's congregation.

Elijah Moshinsky's production is just as controlled: a paragon of traditional virtues in stagecraft that delivers the piece like Ibsen, with enclosed sets (Michael Yeargan) and the stale atmosphere of a household where secrets fester and ferment. The location is subtly shifted to America, which probably makes the context easier to read for an English audience. But otherwise the only obvious divergence from straight-dealing with the text is that the wife's seducer is more sympathetic than intended; and that adds a contour of interest to the one potential weakness of the story - its flatly moral tone. In the best romantic theatre, adultery is a solution not a problem, the seducer a hero who rescues the wife from an unhappy marriage. But here the seducer is, strictly, a villain and dispatched as such. The husband, meanwhile, is a Good Man and a likely bore except that Verdi casts him equivocally, not as the paterfamilial baritone or bass that Italian opera normally associates with clerics and wronged husbands but as a tenor - the voice of ardour, passion, love.

Jose Carreras in the title role has them all. He works too hard to lower the centre of gravity of his performance to the tenor equivalent of paterfamiliarity, with effortful emphasis and a voice which has lost much of its liquidity since he was taken ill. And yet the voice is still remarkable: impactful, agile, strong, and in better shape than I've heard it recently. Catherine Malfitano as the wayward wife is utterly magnificent, with the combination of lyric and dramatic vocal qualities you would expect of a distinguished Violetta, and a repertoire of neurotic stage movement which has the makings of a Verdianbreak-dance but contributes to a vivid portrait of a woman on the edge. Gregory Yurisich is superb in the Germont-like role of her father. And how good it is to leave a Covent Garden show impressed by everything about it: cast, conductor, staging, orchestra and piece - which may not count among the greatest Verdi scores but shares enough of their preoccupations, methods and intensity to bear comparison.

Jonathan Miller's admired production of The Turn of the Screw is back at ENO, as clinically (and chillingly) detached as ever from the decorative Gothic horror of the story except for the figures of the ghosts who seem to have wandered ectoplasmically from some grotesque Victorian melodrama into a foreign world. And, no doubt, that's the idea; as is the resemblance the late Miss Jessel bears to those fallen female revenants in Miller's Don Giovanni. This revival has a very stylish cast led by Philip Langridge - whose farewell to the boy is more beautiful and touching, even, than Peter Pears in a moment when Britten's ambivalence towards the Quint/Miles relationship suddenly becomes clear - and Valerie Masterson sounding astonishingly fresh and youthful as the Governess. Britten's most exposed and systematic opera score (it operates like clockwork in a glass case) needs a stronger personality than James Holmes, the conductor, to command it. In a big house like the Coliseum its transparent textures can sound empty. But the individual performances are wonderful.

The big look-back of the week was the London Sinfonietta's 25th anniversary, crowning a season oddly full of Sinfonietta birthday concerts. It began at 3pm, finished at 10pm, and programmed a slightly soft-option (well, it was a celebration) survey of all the Sinfonietta has stood for in the past quarter-century: modern classics (Schoenberg, Ravel, Varese), new commissions (a finely-wrought trumpet concerto, Psalm: A Song of Ascents, by Robert Saxton), music theatre (a brilliantly played but, alas, ineptly staged Soldier's Tale) and fun (an over-representative dose of Jerome Kern with cement-smile Broadway singers flown in from America).

In a sense it was a pity the Saxton premiere was buried in so hyperactive an event, because it deserved a spotlight and some space as one of the composer's most intriguing and attractive recent works: among other things, a reconsideration of the trumpet's relationship with that most trumpet-resonant of intervals, the Last Post fifth. Yet it was fitting to have a major premiere on such a day, because the Sinfonietta's rationale has never been nostalgia. It exists not for the past but for the future which becomes the past, for a developing repertory; and for the first 25 years of that the Sinfonietta has earned some gratitude. So, happy birthday. And, please, keep them coming.

'Stiffelio' continues Tues, Sat (071-240 1066); 'Turn of the Screw' continues Tues, Fri (071-836 3161).

(Photograph omitted)

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