The Journey: Stiffelio at the Oper Frankfurt

Verdi – Stiffelio

Stiffelio – Russell Thomas
Lina – Sara Jakubiak
Stankar – Dario Solari
Raffaele – Vincent Wolfsteiner
Jorg – Alfred Reiter
Federico di Frengel – Beau Gibson
Dorotea – Maria Pantiukhova

Chor der Oper Frankfurt, Frankfurter Opern- und Museumsorchester / Jérémie Rhorer.
Stage director – Benedict Andrews.

Oper Frankfurt, Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany.  Thursday, February 25th, 2016.

Tonight was one of those very special evenings where absolutely everything came together.  We were given an insightful staging, conducting that really brought the work to life and some spectacularly good singing.  Indeed, this production, when it opened on January 31st, marked Russell Thomas’ role debut as Stiffelio and this is a role that fits his gloriously Italianate tenor like a glove.  Combined with an excellent cast and a young conductor who really gets how this music goes, this was a fabulous evening in the theatre.

Sara Jakubiak, Russell Thomas © Monika Rittershaus
Sara Jakubiak, Russell Thomas © Monika Rittershaus

Benedict Andrews gave us a highly insightful journey of a man’s struggle with faith, his reconciling of his position in the community with his domestic life and his ultimate forgiveness of those who did him wrong.  This journey was mapped with outstanding physicality by Thomas from his nervous buttoning of his jacket in the opening scene to the sight of a broken man rebuilding his life at the end – this was highly compelling theatre.  The set (Johannes Schütz) gave us a house that was shaped as a cross.  Its transparent walls allowed us to peer into the lives of those who lived within and as Lina and Stiffelio sing their Act 1 duet, we are witnesses to their reunion almost as voyeurs of this, one of their most private of moments.  As the evening progresses, the house is elevated to stand up as a cross thereby materially illustrating the centrality of religion to the micro-society in which the characters live.  Furthermore, the revolving stage is used to constantly move the building and the characters around as if they are unable to control their own destinies.  In that respect, the staging had much to say about the nature of an individual’s struggle to reconcile his faith with his private life and his standing in the community.

Russell Thomas, Maria Pantiukhova, Chor der Oper Frankfurt © Monika Rittershaus
Russell Thomas, Maria Pantiukhova, Chor der Oper Frankfurt © Monika Rittershaus

However, I did feel that Andrews lost his way slightly towards the end.  As Stankar appeared after Raffaele’s murder, he entered carrying Raffaele’s head which Lina then had a Salome moment with at the front of the stage.  It felt completely out of keeping with the narrative of the staging up until that point and the only possible audience reaction was to laugh out loud to it, which a significant number of people did.  In the final scene, Lina drops her veil only to appear in her underwear with her body painted in white.  Again, this was something that came from nowhere and while it produced an interesting stage picture with the congregation abandoning her in her near-nakedness, it came from nowhere and felt added on just to make some kind of point that could have been made much more in keeping with the staging up until that moment.  Nevertheless, despite these two reservations, it was an intelligent and vital production that really brought the work to life.

Russell Thomas © Monika Rittershaus
Russell Thomas © Monika Rittershaus

Musically, it really was spectacularly good.  Thomas’ Stiffelio really is a major role debut for this outstanding US tenor.  His sound has so much richness and that genuine musicality that cannot be taught.  There’s an honesty to his singing that really brings the listener in.  The voice was in spectacular shape tonight, absolutely even in emission, the top opening up thrillingly.  When he pulled back the tone to a thread he revealed a beguiling smokiness to the sound that is absolutely ravishing.  As soon as Thomas starts to sing, one is left in no doubt that one is listening to a five-star voice.  His truly is an exceptional talent.

Sara Jakubiak & Russell Thomas © Monika Rittershaus
Sara Jakubiak & Russell Thomas © Monika Rittershaus

I first came across Sara Jakubiak as a very fine Marie in Wozzeck at ENO.  I was intrigued by how she would sing Verdi.  The tone is somewhat shallow and the bottom perhaps somewhat weak.  The top is big and exciting but her intonation comes and goes.  And yet there’s something absolutely compelling about her singing and her acting.  She is a singing-actress who genuinely lives her role and certainly completely won over this spectator.  Her singing was always musical, sung with a genuine sense of line and understanding of the music.  Hers isn’t the most beautiful of tones but there’s a realness to her singing that is completely gripping.  She is an artist of great potential and I look forward to following her career.

Vincent Wolfsteiner, Sara Jakubiak, Dario Solari © Monika Rittershaus
Vincent Wolfsteiner, Sara Jakubiak, Dario Solari © Monika Rittershaus

Dario Solari sang Stankar with a genuinely Italianate line and a milky-smooth legato with a profound sensitivity to how the music should go.  Unfortunately, the tone was dry and he almost came to grief in his Act 3 aria.  I wondered if he was in fact indisposed and that there should have been an announcement made.  His singing was elegant and always musical and I trust I’ll have the opportunity to hear him again under better circumstances.  Vincent Wolfsteiner really made much of a minor character as Raffaele.  His bright tenor contrasted nicely with Thomas’ Stifellio and his acting was absolutely magnetic.  Indeed, one regretted that Verdi didn’t give Raffaele more to do.  The remaining roles were sung at the high standard that one expects at this address.

Sara Jakubiak, Russell Thomas, Dario Solari © Monika Rittershaus
Sara Jakubiak, Russell Thomas, Dario Solari © Monika Rittershaus

Jérémie Rhorer’s conducting was sensational.  He is known as an outstanding Mozartian but tonight he also revealed himself as a very fine Verdian.  Right from the very first notes of the overture he illustrated an ideal rhythmic impetus that carried the work right through to its conclusion.  His sense of phrasing was accentuated by the highly intelligent use of dynamics and the tempi really were chosen to perfection.  He gave his singers the space they needed to phrase their music but also kept the music going where it really needed to.  For the first time, I actually felt that this was a much more important work in Verdi’s oeuvre that I had previously thought it to be.  The orchestra played well, yes the intonation in the violins at the very top of their registers was slightly sour but otherwise it was extremely well played.  The chorus sang well, their unaccompanied music in Act 3 scene 2 displayed wonderful blend and depth of tone.  There were a few patches where they lost contact with the pit but otherwise the choral singing was of a very good quality indeed.

Russell Thomas, Sara Jakubiak © Monika Rittershaus
Russell Thomas, Sara Jakubiak © Monika Rittershaus

This was a performance that genuinely lived, capped with by an assumption of the title role that certainly felt that one was listening to some golden age singing.  This was really a phenomenal evening in the theatre, one that brought a rarely-performed work to life and was performed at the very highest standard.  If the staging lost its way towards the end, it was undoubtedly a highly insightful piece of theatre, very well sung and superbly conducted.


One comment

  1. I saw clips of this production and thought it quite interesting and in the brief clips I saw, Russell Thomas indeed sounded sensational. Such a compelling artist! One of my favorite singers. Thanks for sharing the excellent review.

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