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Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Stiffelio - Opera in three acts (1849)
Stiffelio, A Protestant minister of the Gospel - Roberto Aronica (tenor); Lina, Stiffelio’s wife caught in adultery - Yu Guanqun (soprano); Count Stankar, an elderly officer and Lina’s father - Roberto Frontali (baritone); Jorg, an elderly minister - George Andguladze (bass); Raffaele, a nobleman - Gabriele Magnione (tenor); Dorotea, Lina’s cousin - Lorelay Solis (mezzo)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro Regio, Parma/Andrea Battistona
Stage Director: Guy Momtavon
Set and Costume Designer: Francesco Calcagnini
Video Director: Tiziano Mancini
rec. live, Parma, Verdi Festival, 18 and 24 April 2012
Sound Formats: DTS-HD MA 5.1. PCM Stereo
Filmed in HD 1080i. Aspect ratio: 16:9
Booklet languages: English, German, French
Subtitles: Italian (original language), English, German, French, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Japanese
C MAJOR 723104 [127:00 +10:00 bonus]

This is numbered fifteen in the Tutto Verdi (all Verdi) series. Despite the series name two operas are missing. The present opera was, for a long time, thought lost. This was a consequence of the composer choosing a socially sensitive subject and having to make significant amendments to it before and after the premiere. The background, history and re-emergence of this work in the 1960s is worth recounting.
The premiere of Luisa Miller in Naples in 1850 marked the end of what Verdi called his anni di gallera: his years as a galley slave. His contracted commitments included 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 with the exception - at Verdi’s continued insistence - of Milan’s La Scala. With time pressing for the Ricordi commission Verdi proposed four subjects to Piave his compliant librettist. 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. He 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. Verdi’s success with intimate relationships involved in his two previous operas, La Battaglia di Legnano and Luisa Miller meant that he felt confident about his capacity to deal with the story. Together with La Traviata, Stiffeliois the only Verdi opera on a contemporary subject.
Piave and Verdi travelled to the then Austrian port city of Trieste for the premiere. There they 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 her adultery was forbidden, as was her earlier address to her husband when she appeals to him as a minister, not as her husband, Ministro, ministro confessateri (Minister, minister, hear my confession). Verdi’s considered that the changes demanded would emasculate the dramatic impact of the whole plot. He agreed to compromises with the censorsas long as the dramatic situation and the thrust of his music was not affected.
Later in his career and where compromise was not possible, as with Un Ballo in Maschera, he might have packed his bags and taken his opera elsewhere. However, 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 on 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 instead 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. This was premiered at the Teatro Nuovo, Rimini on 16 August 1857.
As was Verdi’s habit when revising a scene or aria, he removed the revised or replaced pages from the manuscript autograph. To all intents and purposes, Stiffelio ceased to exist as a performing entity complete with orchestration. That said, vocal scores did remain 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).
In 1992 planning was underway to celebrate Placido Domingo’s 25th anniversary of his Metropolitan Opera debut. After discussion with the editors of The Works of Verdi, in Critical Editions, Stiffelio was proposed with a planned premiere in October 1993 (see review). By then Critical Editions of Verdi’s works were very much the order of the day. High profile planning of the Critical Edition of Verdi’s 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. These they had, until then, jealously guarded and access tothem had previously been denied. Scholars Philip Gossett and Pierluigi Petrobelli studied these in February 1992. The sketches and autograph revealed the composer’s true intentions in respect of the words of the scenes before the censor had mangled them and, consequently, the true intensity of the personal drama between Stiffelio and his wife. Study of the sketches provided the basis for the Critical Edition prepared by Kathleen Hansell which is used in this performance.
The singing cast here is superior to many in this series, albeit not on a level with that at the Metropolitan Opera. Add a traditional production in period costume, good direction, excellent sound and imaginative, if sparse, stage sets. These elements come together to make a most desirable issue of this too rarely performed work. It comes nineteenth in performances among Verdi’s operas and three hundred and third overall. It deserves better, especially when performed and staged as well as here.
With the young Andrea Battistona on the rostrum the orchestra play with style and vigour. They bring out the dramatic nature of the work. As ever in this series, the chorus of the Teatro Regia, Parma, are outstanding in commitment. There is no weak link among the soloists with outstanding acted and sung performances from Yu Guanqun as the erring wife and Roberto Aronica as the cuckolded husband and minister who has to reconcile his inner agony with his beliefs and practices. Both sing with power, good characterisation and nicely nuanced phrasing. She conveys the agonies of her own betrayal of the man she really loves with a passing philanderer (CH.10). This is communicated again in her pleading with her husband for forgiveness as a priest (CHs.20-21). Roberto Aronica also sings strongly and has no difficulty with the tessitura. His slightly baritonal tone comes with clarity of diction and a welcome and unforced ping. He also has the capacity to sing softly, welcome among current tenors in the Verdi repertoire. His body and facial acting is not up to the standard of that of Yu Guanqun, but is satisfactory and convincing nonetheless, particularly when he offers her a divorce and wants to kill her seducer (CHs.29-31).
As Stankar, Lina’s father and the man who actually kills the seducer Raffaele, Roberto Frontali acts well. He brings out the drama with his strongly marked out enunciation and committed acting. Commendably, he manages to stay in role despite the prolonged applause after his aria (CHs.26-28). As the seducer, Gabriele Magnione, lyric tenor, looks suitably foppish in his elegant garb among the darkly clad principals and chorus (CH.4). As the old preacher Jorg, the bass George Andguladze, adds character to his singing, despite being excessively bent.
At the conclusion the discerning Parma audience are rightly generous in their appreciation.
Robert J Farr