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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

The Verdi Project: Stiffelio

Verdi battles the censors with an opera about religion.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Preacher man: José Cura as Stiffelio at the Metropolitan Opera.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2010 The Metropolitan Opera.
(Note: This article was originally going to be about Luisa Miller, which is a Verdi opera of some considerable interest and importance. However, with the recent Metropolitan Opera Preview and review of that work on Superconductor in recent weeks, we thought it might be interesting to look at a lesser known (but very important) Verdi work.)

There are twenty-eight canonical operas in the Verdi canon, and some of them have had to wait longer than others to be discovered and performed in the standard repertory. None waited longer than Stiffelio, the opera that Verdi composed for the stage in Trieste. Chopped by the censors and revised twice into operas with very different titles, Stiffelio finally became a stage success in 1968. (An approved critical edition of the score, drawn from Verdi's own papers did not appear until 1993, when it was staged at the Metropolitan Opera. It has been revived a few times since.)

Here's the story: Stiffelio (tenor) is an older, married Protestant preacher, the leader of a (fictional) sect called the Assassveriani. His wife Lina has an affair with a younger man while he is out spreading the word of God. He comes home to her confession and an ugly love triangle, made worse by her angry father who eventually kills his daughter's lover. Stiffelio offers her a divorce, and is about to denounce her in front of his congregation. At the last moment, his eye falls upon the sermon given by Jesus on the Mountain of Olives. He forgives his wife.

Like the three operas that followed it (they're called Rigoletto, Il Trovatore and La Traviata and will be the subjects of the next three articles in this series) Stiffelo was a bold and revolutionary work with a focus on real human emotions. It was based on an Italian translation of an 1838 French play Le Pasteur. The libretto was adapted from an Italian translation of the play, Stiffelius by Verdi's regular collaborator Francesco Maria Piave.

The censors forced Verdi to change the character, the action, and most importantly the ending of his opera, omitting the crucial Biblical quotation. Trieste audiences were indifferent to the watered-down opera. And it was pretty radical for 1850: a Protestant minister who chooses forgiveness instead of the usual bloody revenge. The opera closed quickly. And with the success of the three operas that followed, Stiffelio was quickly forgotten, a footnote in the large Verdi canon.

Verdi's publisher made the best they could of the situation. Without Verdi's approval, the neutered Stiffelio was presented in 1851 a few cities as Guglielmo Wellingrode. This version made the hero a minister...of state, removing all religious aspects from the story, but impresarios still asked Verdi to change the controversial ending. It disappeared quickly. 

In 1857, Verdi took some of the music from Stiffelio, stripped the meat from the bones of the story and remade the work into Aroldo, a mostly forgotten work that makes the preacher man into a knight of the Crusades and moves the action to...Scotland. However, due to the popularity of the revived Stiffelio, this remake is heard even less often than its progenitor.

Listening to the 1979 recording of the opera with José Carreras and Sylvia Sass, one finds much to recommend in the score of Stiffelio. Like Luisa Miller, there is an expansive overture, with a jaunty trumpet solo that shows the influence of Donizetti. The title role is a powerful tenor part, showing the direction that Verdi would eventually take in casting his leading men. (The tenor singing style was changing in the mid-19th century and the composer had made many of his older leading men baritones in operas like Nabucco and Macbeth.) The confrontations between Stiffelio and the other characters, particularly Lina are memorable.

Finally, the drama is original in nature, an intimate story crossed with intolerance among those who are (ironically) victims of religious persecution. This close community, led by Stiffelio himself, the gruff and judgmental priest Jorg and the crusty nobleman Stankar, are quick to turn on Lina for her sin. Stiffelio himself is kind of a prototype for Verdi's later husband characters: Renato in Un Ballo in Maschera and the title role of Otello.

Recording Recommendations:

Like the history of Stiffelio itself, this is sort of complicated.

ORF Symphony Orchestra and Chorus cond. Lamberto Gardelli (Philips-Decca 1979)
In the 1970s, the Italian conductor Lamberto Gardelli set out to record most of the Verdi operas that had been neglected by record companies. José Carreras is on form here as Stiffelio, firm in tone and authoritative. His Lina is Sylvia Sass. The characterful Matteo Managuerra and Wladimir Ganzirolli are Stankar and Jorg.

Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus cond. James Levime (Deutsche Grammophon 1994)
Placido Domingo stars in the title role of the opera opposite Sharon Sweet, caught in her very short prime as Lina. Vladimir Chernov, who made his reputation playing Verdi baritone roles at the Met in the 1990s is Stankar. James Levine conducts this live performance filmed in the Met house. This version is only available on DVD.

Coro e Orchestra della Maggio Musicale Firenze (Decca, 1997)
Neil Shicoff is ideal casting for Aroldo in this rare recording of Verdi's "remake" of Stiffelio. Fabio Luisi, who followed in the steps of Mr. Gardelli (conducting all the operas that weren't in Gardelli's original series) does a more than competent job leading this rarest of Verdi works.

Made it this far, huh? Great! You get to watch a scene from Stiffelio 
here with Placido Domingo, Paul Plishka and Sharon Sweet. 
Video © 1994 The Metropolitan Opera.

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