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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Stiffelio - opera in three acts (1849)
Stiffelio, A Protestant minister of the Gospel – Placido Domingo (tenor); Lina, Stiffelio’s wife caught in adultery – Sharon Sweet (soprano); Stankar, an elderly officer and Lina’s father – Vladimir Chernov (baritone); Jorg, an elderly minister – Paul Plishka (bass); Raffaele, a nobleman – Peter Riberi (tenor); Dototea, Lina’s cousin – Margaret Lallimore (mezzo)
Metropolitan Opera Chorus
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra/James Levine.
Stage director: Giancarlo Del Monaco; Set and costume design by Michael Scott; Video director: Brian Large
rec. live, Metropolitan Opera, New York, November 1993
Picture format: NTSC/Colour/4:3
Sound formats: PCM Stereo. DTS 5.1. DOLBY digital 5.1
Menu language: English. Subtitles: Italian (original language), English, German, French, Spanish, Chinese.
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 0734288 [116:00]

Following the premiere of Luisa Miller in Naples in 1850, the years that Verdi called his ‘anni di gallera’ (years in the galleys) could finally be seen to be over. Despite having cursed the pressures of his compositional life and the psychosomatic sore throats and stomach pains it induced, Verdi still, from time to time, put himself under pressure by leaving too little time to become familiar with the characters of the plot and also compose the music. His best and most successful future operas were most often those whose subjects he had mulled over for months or even years. This was particularly the case with Rigoletto which he had considered as early as 1849 whilst in Naples to present Luisa Miller. It was at that time that he suggested that Cammarano, the local librettist, look at Victor Hugo’s play Le Roi s’amuse as a suitable subject for an opera. He described it as a beautiful play with tremendous dramatic situations. Back home in Busseto he followed this up with suggestions that the librettist also look at Garcia Gutiérez’s Spanish play Il Trovador. Both suggestions bore operatic fruit  in 1851 and 1853 and were in this form to be outstandingly successful.
Verdi’s actual contracted commitments were twofold. The first was an opera for Ricordi, his publisher. This was to be given in the autumn of 1850 in any Italian theatre of the publisher’s choosing, except - at Verdi’s continued insistence - Milan’s La Scala. The second was for an opera for La Fenice in Venice. With time pressing for the Ricordi commission Verdi proposed four subjects to his compliant librettist Piave. These included the very same Le Roi s’amuse that he had already suggested to Cammarano. Piave countered with a list including Stiffelius, based on a French play. The story concerns a protestant minister whose wife commits adultery in her husband’s absence and who forgives her from the pulpit choosing an apposite reading from the Bible. It is a melodramatic story packed with human emotions and inter-relationships as well as dramatic situations. With Verdi’s success with the intimate relationships in his two previous operas, La battaglia di Legnano and Luisa Miller, he felt confident about his capacity to deal with the story. Together with La Traviata, Stiffelio is the only opera that Verdi composed on a contemporary subject.
Piave quickly produced the libretto of Stiffelio, Verdi’s sixteenth opera and the composer spent the summer months of 1850 on the work. The two travelled to Trieste for the premiere and hit big opposition from the Catholic Church who not only objected to the concept of a priest being a married man, but also that the congregation were represented kneeling in prayer! Further, Stiffelio’s quotation from The Sermon on the Mount, as he publicly forgives his wife Lina her adultery was forbidden, as was her earlier address to her husband when she appeals Ministro, ministro confessateri (Minister, minister, hear my confession). Verdi considered that the changes demanded would emasculate the dramatic impact of the plot. He agreed to compromises with the censors as long as the dramatic situation and the thrust of his music was not affected. In other circumstances and where compromise was not possible, as with Un Ballo in Maschera, he might have packed his bags and taken his opera elsewhere. With Stiffelio having been placed by Ricordi this was not open to him despite his frustration and near incandescent anger at the necessary revisions. The premiere on 16 November 1850 was well received with press comments such as tender melodies follow one another in a most attractive manner. All the performances in Trieste were sold out with the church scene omitted in at least three of them. In staging in other Italian cities Stiffelio was re-titled Guglielmo Wellingrode, its principal character no longer a 19th century protestant pastor, but a Prime Minister of a German principality in the early 15th century! As the Verdi scholar Julian Budden notes (Verdi, Master Musicians Series, Dent. 1984), the composer was used to having certain subjects rejected and seeing his works bowdlerised when revived in Naples and the Papal States. This was the first time, however, that he had suffered the mutilation of a work at its premiere. He determined that he would find a way of making it censor-proof. He first withdrew the work and in 1856, with Piave altering the locale and period and with significant modifications and additions to the music, it became the revised opera Aroldo that was premiered at the Teatro Nuovo, Rimini on 16 August 1857.
As was Verdi’s habit when revising a scene or aria in an opera, he removed the revised or replaced pages from the manuscript autograph. To all intents and purposes, Stiffelio ceased to exist in a performance form complete with orchestration, although vocal scores were available. In the late 1960s, after orchestral parts for both Stiffelio and its bowdlerised version Guglielmo Wellingrode came to light in the Naples Conservatory, an integral performance of Stiffelio became possible after one hundred and fifteen years. This took place in a performing edition by Rubin Profeta in Parma on 26 December 1968 conducted by Peter Maag. An even better version of what Verdi wrote is the basis of the 1979 Philips recording, part of their early Verdi series under Lamberto Gardelli (422-432-2). As well as Carreras the recording features Sylvia Sass as the adulterous wife in one of her rare assumptions on a mainstream label. Matteo Manuguerra is a little blustery as Stankar the avenging father whilst Wladimiro Ganzarolli is firm as Stiffelio’s fellow priest as is Ezio Di Cesare as the seducer of Lina; both roles are shown as comprimario in the score. An alternative live performance from Trieste in December 2000, featuring Dimitra Theodossiou as Lina and Giorgio Casciarri in the title role is available from Dynamic (CDS 362/1-2). I have not heard this performance myself but have read good reports of it.
In 1992 planning was under way to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Placido Domingo’s debut at the Metropolitan Opera. After discussion with the editors of ‘The Works of Verdi’, Stiffelio was proposed and a premiere was planned for October 1993. By then critical editions of Verdi’s works were very much the order of the day. High profile planning of the critical edition of the Requiem, and its reception, induced the Verdi heirs, still residing at his home in Busseto, to give access to the composer’s sketches of Stiffelio. Previously they had jealously guarded them and access had been denied. Scholars Philip Gossett and Pierluigi Petrobelli studied these in February 1992. The sketches and autograph revealed the composer’s true intentions. These were reflected in the words of the scenes before the censor had mangled both them and the true intensity of the personal drama between Stiffelio and his wife. Study of the sketches provided the basis for the Critical Edition which was prepared by Kathleen Hansell. This is the version which is used in this performance recorded in November 1993.
Also in 1993, Stiffelio was given at Covent Garden when Carreras took the eponymous role. The production, seen on British TV, is now available on DVD (BBC/Covent Garden on the Pioneer label, unnumbered). The production and performance, just as this one does, shows Stiffelio to be the dramatic and musically cohesive work that Verdi knew he had created. The production by Elijah Moshinsky and conducted by Edward Downes features Catherine Malfitano as a dramatically acted Lina and Gregory Yurisich as Stanka her father. José Carreras in the title role gives a performance of the utmost commitment both as to acting and singing. He is vocally a little more stretched at times than on the Philips audio recording. Also he hasn’t quite the vocal heft that Domingo brings to the role in the performance under review. Like the Covent Garden performance this Met production is set in appropriate period costumes and with naturalistic church and cemetery settings. These together with Giancarlo Del Monaco’s focused and straightforward direction enable the singers to concentrate on the drama of the story without the distractions found in so many concept productions.
The eponymous role requires the tenor to be fully involved, dramatically making considerable demands on his acting ability as well as his singing. There are times when the emotional pressures on Stiffelio arising from his doubts and from his wife’s infidelity are reminiscent of those found in Otello. There is no Iago to weave distrust in his mind; instead there is actual evidence, not least when Stiffelio notices that his wife is not wearing her wedding ring (CH. 9) and later faints beneath the cross in the cemetery (CH. 25). As the reigning Otello of the period Domingo lacks nothing in vocal heft or baritonal lower notes to portray the agony of Stiffelio’s position. But just as in his interpretations of Otello he brings much much more to his portrayal in terms of acting involvement. His body and face convey his involvement in the unfolding story and the dilemma of Stiffelio’s position as husband and priest. I count this as one of his best recorded assumptions. That alone makes the performance highly recommendable. As his wife, Sharon Sweet sings quite beautifully with smooth legato and a fine feel for Verdian phrasing. Although she is expressive in Lina’s response to Stiffelio’s questions about her ring (CH. 10) that vocal expressiveness is not reflected in her body language or face. In fact her acting is nearly a non-event and contrasts poorly compared with Malfitano’s visual commitment in the Covent Garden performance. As Lina’s implacable father Stankar, who is appalled at her behaviour, Vladimir Chernov sings with burnished tone (CHs. 26-28) whilst his demeanour is appropriately stiff as befits an ex army officer. Verdi was always fond of duets between father and daughter and this opera is no exception (CHs. 11-14). In the marked comprimario parts of Stiffelio’s older colleague Jorg and the seducer Raffaele, Paul Plishka and Peter Riberi, sing well and act convincingly.
I would not wish to pretend that Stiffelio should stand alongside Otello in respect of either its libretto or Verdi’s music. However there are many moments of drama that bring the great later opera to mind: the tense final scene inside the church with the words that Verdi actually set to music (Chs. 30-34) comes very close. Within five months of the premiere of Stiffelio, Verdi presented Rigoletto in Venice. There is no flood of arias here as in the successor opera so that the audience would hardly depart with a tune on their lips. Rather the concentration on the dramatic situation, so well brought out by Domingo and also by Levine in the pit should have despatched the anniversary Met audience happy at seeing a rediscovered Verdi opera in all its glory.
Robert J Farr

Verdi conspectus


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