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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Stiffelio - opera in three acts (1849)
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
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.
GRAMMOPHON 0734288 [116:00]
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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