Logically speaking, an opera in concert form is all wrong. No scenery, no costumes, no lighting; the orchestra sitting up on the stage, instead of in a pit. Can such a thing really be opera? More to the point, can it possibly be as rewarding as a theatrical production?
You bet it can, as the Washington Concert Opera demonstrated to brilliant effect Tuesday night at the Kennedy Center with Verdi's Stiffelio.
Although occasionally revived, it remains one of the composer's least appreciated creations. Premiered in 1850, the year before Rigoletto, Stiffelio was essentially doomed from the start. The plot - the minister of a small Protestant sect in early-1800s Austria returns from a journey to find his wife an adulterer, offers her a divorce, but ultimately forgives her - was a little too contemporary and a little too off-putting (especially for the Italian Catholics who made up the first audience).
Worse, official government censors, who objected to just about everything, made hash out of the libretto before they were through with it, enraging Verdi. Years later, he adapted the music to a different text (relocating the action to medieval Scotland), but the newly christened Aroldo fared no better.
Taken on its own terms, the original Stiffelio has much to recommend it, including a taut pace, structural originality and imaginative orchestration. The shortcomings, among them insufficient background on the adulterous affair, can be easily forgotten when the work is performed with conviction.
Antony Walker, finishing up his first season as artistic director of Washington Concert Opera, exuded that conviction from the get-go. His remarkably assured conducting provided a firm foundation for the performance, which combined propulsion and reflection in just the right degrees. He generated admirable drive, crispness of attack and beauty of line from the orchestra, which, in a way, sang as vibrantly as the cast.
Heading that cast was Luis Lima in the title role. At his best, the tenor produced an exciting, hall-chewing tone and phrased with considerable passion, but passages of droopy pitch took a certain toll. (In the last scene, when Stiffelio consults a Bible, Lima crossed himself, presumably forgetting for a moment the character's faith.)
An occasional raw sound never detracted from Veronica Villarroel's involving, sympathetic portrayal of Stiffelio's vulnerable wife, Lina. The soprano did some sensational singing, drawing on a ripe low register and gleaming high notes to enrich the words. She made Lina's emotional, soul-searching scene at the start of Act 2 deeply moving (Walker coaxed luminous string playing for her there).
William Stone (Stankar, Lina's father) needed a little more tonal weight at times, but he relished the lyrical power in this baritone role. Daniel Sumegi (Jorg, an old minister) summoned terrific vocal and interpretive force. Barbara Quintiliani shone in the brief role of Dorotea. Robert Baker (Raffaele) and Lonel Woods (Federico) completed the cast ably. The chorus offered consistently polished and dynamic work, adding one more asset to a remarkable resuscitation of this neglected opera.