Luciano Ganci, Maria Katzarava, Francesco Landolfi; Bologna Theatre Chorus/Guillermo García Calvo; dir. Graham Vick (Parma, 2017)
Naxos DVD: 2.110590; Blu-ray: NBD0084V 119 mins
Graham Vick’s production of Stiffelio is a triumph. This orphan amongst Verdi’s early operas, lost to most modern audiences until 1968, emerges in a production from the 2017 Verdi Festival in Parma as an edgy and deeply uncomfortable exploration of the frontier between social intolerance and personal choice. A 19th-century Catholic Italian audience may have scorned a story with a firebrand Protestant pastor as its hero and decided that adultery and divorce in modern dress were best swept under the carpet, but Verdi’s slice of modern life – his first before La traviata – resonates strongly today.
Vick’s production transforms Parma’s Teatro Farnese; the seats are removed and the drama is acted out on a series of rolling platforms in the stalls arena. The lines between the viewer and the viewed are blurred, challenging the comfortable assumption that music drama is something that happens to other people across the footlights. When two gay men are beaten by priests, rabble roused by pastor Stiffelio, are they actors or audience? Luciano Ganci is a splendid Stiffelio, a conflicted hero torn between revenge for his wife’s adultery and a belief in forgiveness. Francesco Landolfi is a useful Stankar but it’s the Mexican soprano Maria Katzarava as his daughter Lina, married to the bible-bashing pastor, who sings her heart out as she walks the line between sacred and sexually profane love. Hers is a rich and expressive voice and nowhere more so than in the duets with her husband. If communication between the conductor, Guillermo García Calvo and his singers sometimes falters, who cares? This is music-drama with an equal stress on both words.