Written by: Mansel Stimpson
Being an Italian born in Rome who made his operatic debut in that city, Roberto Frontali hardly surprises us by putting the music of his fellow-countrymen at the centre of his repertoire. For him Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti have all been chosen composers but above all he is thought of as a Verdi specialist. Even so there are still fresh roles for him to conquer within that composer’s work and I meet him at Covent Garden as he prepares for his first appearance as Count Stankar, one of the three major roles in the opera that Verdi wrote in 1850, Stiffelio.
The piece is contemporaneous with Rigoletto but is a little-known work. There are historical reasons that account for this. We are all familiar with operas that opened disastrously in terms of critical response but would overcome that to take their place as staples of the repertoire. Carmen is a case in point. The story regarding Stiffelio is rather different however. Based on a contemporary French play, Le Pasteur, it told of a man of religion – that’s Stiffelio – who has to decide what to do when he discovers that his wife, Lina, the daughter of Count Stankar, has committed an act of adultery. It was subject-matter that outraged the censors and the work was duly diluted by turning the central character into a German minister of state of the 15th-century, a transformation that disgusted Verdi so much that he rejected a proposal to stage this version at La Scala in Milan. Instead he used some of the music in a subsequent 13th-century period piece, Aroldo. The consequence was that Stiffelio disappeared, literally so in that the original score seemed to be lost. Copies of it surfaced leading to a production in 1968 but it was an edition prepared by Sir Edward Downes, one taking account of more accurate material subsequently unearthed, that led to a Covent Garden staging in 1993. It is that production, again staged by Elijah Moshinsky, which is currently being revived.
Before discussing Stiffelio with Roberto Frontali, I ask him about his background, enquiring if as an Italian he seemed predestined for a career in opera. “My family wanted me to work in a bank. As a kid I had always enjoyed singing, being the first to do it in school, at parties, everywhere, but I didn’t know that I would be able to sing opera. However, during my time at the University of Rome where I graduated in economics I was a chorister and the maestro there took me aside because my voice was too loud to fit in. “Why don’t you go and become a soloist instead of staying here with us?” he said, and I decided to try it. I soon found that I loved it and so started to take part in competitions for young singers. I was still at this time being considered for bank posts but in reality the decision had been made.”
Having won the Spoletto competition for young voices in 1986, Roberto was quickly in demand and his career was further boosted by having made his debut in Rome’s Teatro dell’Opera in the little known Spontini opera Agnese di Hohenstaufen. It was in a role that proved to be bigger than he had anticipated and it found him singing a duet with Montserrat Caballé. By the early nineties he had gone on to make his debut at Metropolitan Opera as well as at La Scala. “At the beginning of my career I performed in French – Manon, Faust – and in addition I did something in German at Spoletto, but I became a specialist in the Italian repertoire starting with the bel canto roles. I still do them and because my voice is now larger I believe that I am able to sing Il barbiere di Seviglia better than before. However, I’m most involved with Verdi these days. To sing his works well I think that you have to come from bel canto because if your background is in verismo or in Wagner it’s quite difficult to maintain the expression you need for this kind of singing.”
But when it comes to Stiffelio the demands are particularly onerous as Roberto explains. “When I started to study my role I found it strange because it was not the Verdi I knew but something quite different. He may have been experimenting, or perhaps the register he was using is an indication that he wanted to draw closer to Donizetti. For me it is the tessitura that is the problem here. In Stiffelio the baritone sings very high – indeed the tenor often sings lower than he does. The opera was written for Trieste and there was an established company there so Verdi probably knew which singers would be available. Their baritone was famous for the kind of coloratura and high register that you find in Donizetti, as it seems likely that the role of Stankar was written for a specific singer with a special kind of voice. There’s another relevant factor too: today we use a pitch that is at least a half tone higher and that’s one of the reasons why we have difficulties in finding dramatic tenors able to sing high enough. The other day I was asking our Stiffelio, José Cura, which was the harder role to sing, this one or Otello, and he said that it is Stiffelio which was the more difficult by far. So he and I face comparable challenges. However he and Sondra Radvanovsky who is our Lina have done it before, whereas that’s not the case with our conductor, Mark Elder, with whom I recently worked on Don Carlos. He and I are the two debutants here. His presence is very helpful because he’s very charismatic and he involves you. These days it’s not easy to find a conductor who really works with you and gives you input that helps you to make your character grow but during the first week of rehearsals Mark would share his research with us. That kind of sharing is invaluable because it totally prevents your work from becoming a matter of routine. It’s also good to be working again with Sondra: we have twice done Traviata together and she’s a great actress.”
The question of needing to act well comes up again when I ask this experienced Verdian if Stiffelio has features other than the question of the tessitura that mark it out from Verdi’s other operas. “In some respects it is characteristic. In many works Verdi was interested in the interaction between private and social life – you find it in Don Carlos and Simon Boccanegra for example. Here you have this strongly religious community in which Stiffelio is almost a Christ figure, someone who has brought to them a new dimension, a new life, and who is revered by my character who is Stiffelio’s father-in-law. You could even perhaps find here something not dissimilar to those fundamentalist religious communities we hear of in America today. Stankar’s concern when he discovers his daughter’s adultery is very much centred on the issue of family dishonour and on the effect this will have on his son-in-law should it get out. In his aria this question of honour takes pride of place, much more so than concern for the daughter he had loved but by whom he now feels disgraced. At the end of the opera his feelings are far less clear than those of, say, Rigoletto which are so transparent and deep-rooted. Stankar has exacted revenge and his repentance, briefly indicated, may not be sincere, He has no separate words at the close when everybody echoes Stiffelio’s declaration of forgiveness for Lina. This is far removed from another Verdi father-figure, that of Germont in La traviata: when I play that role I sing it in a way that reveals the change in his outlook and in his very psychology when he has come to realise that Violetta despite her background is a woman deserving of respect.
“But Stankar displays a range of emotions and is interesting to play while Stiffelio is itself a striking opera. It has a contemporary feel to it and points the way to Verdi’s Otello. It’s not at all like Il Trovatore with its sequence of arias and cabalettas. Arias are included but you start with the story and go on from there, with no stops inserted to show off the bravura of the singers. That makes the acting all the more important and I think that’s why the opera feels so modern. Given the problems over the tessitura I probably ought to wait until the premiere is over before saying that I would sing the role again! Actually though I do think that this is a role that I could sing often and I’m quite convinced that this was an opera that Verdi loved. That would explain why he tried to rework it in Aroldo, just as he made second versions of other works of his in a quest for the best possible solution. Verdi was a composer who loved to make good theatre and he would have wanted to do his very best by Stiffelio because it’s a big piece of theatre.”
- The opening night of Stiffelio is 20 April 2007 and runs until 10 May (5 May is at 7 o’clock)
- Box office: 020 7304 4000
- Royal Opera