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2005: Stiffelio


Program notes by George W. Martin


In the early 1850s, Verdi sought to stretch the conventions of Italian opera by staging two new works in modern dress:  Stiffelio (1850) and La Traviata (1853). With each, though the opera derived from a contemporary play, he failed: impresarios and audiences thought of opera as costume drama, and the period of Traviata soon was moved back to the early 1700s and so performed until about 1900. 


He had less luck with Stiffelio. At its premiere, in Trieste, most critics condemned the contemporary costumes, but far worse, only two days before opening night the work had to be revised to meet new regulations issued by the city’s Austrian government. These forbade onstage “any representation of sacred practices and church services of recognized religions” or of “sacred vestments,” and struck to the heart of the opera, which tells of Stiffelio, an itinerant Protestant preacher who on returning home discovers that his wife has had a brief affair with a young nobleman. Though a man of God, Stiffelio doubts: Can he forgive her? Can he practice what he preaches?


By the opera’s final scene, facing his congregation from the pulpit, he knows what God requires of him, and as a preacher and a man he publicly forgives her. Of Verdi’s twenty-three operas between Nabucco and Falstaff (not counting revisions), only Stiffelio offers a happy ending.


One might think that any Christian church or government would welcome such a drama. But no. At the premiere the final scene played without a cross onstage, or a pulpit, or anyone kneeling, and elsewhere impresarios set the opera’s period back to the 1400s and changed the story completely. Nowhere did Stiffelio play as Verdi wished. Frustrated, he withdrew it, suppressing performances, and seven years later used roughly forty percent of its music in another opera, Aroldo (1857), with Aroldo (Stiffelio) a fifteenth-century English crusader returning home. For a time Aroldo had a moderate success, but Stiffelio was silenced. Its music disappeared, and not until 1968, when perhaps eighty percent of it had been pieced together, was it again performed. Happily, by 1993 it was effectively restored in full. 


Although the libretto often creaks with tricks of concealment and coincidence, in the main it is excellent, posing three large themes wanting resolution: Stiffelio’s emotional conflict; the need of his wife, Lina, to convince him that despite her mistake she loves him; and the question of how her father Count Stankar, a retired military officer, will respond to the stain on family honor. Lina, in a powerful scene with Stiffelio, finally pierces his shell of indignation and vanity by signing the papers of divorce that he offers and then demanding that as her preacher he hear her confession. That shakes him, and ultimately leads to forgiveness. 


Stankar’s problem, conversely, is left partially unresolved, and much depends on how the stage director plays it. At first Stankar hopes to conceal the family’s shame and orders Lina to live a lie, never to tell Stiffelio of what has happened. When that proves impossible, he challenges the seducer to a duel, which Stiffelio, as a man of God, stops. At which point Stankar in a burst of anger tattles the seducer’s identity to Stiffelio. Later, he kills the seducer offstage (an act sometimes brought onstage) and enters with his sword bloody. Those onstage are appalled and ask, A murder? A duel? And he equivocally replies, An expiation. In the final scene he, like Lina, asks God for pardon, but: Is he forgiven? 


Since its restoration the opera has played with ever greater frequency, including productions at the Metropolitan, Covent Garden, and in Los Angeles. Some of the music is trivial, some much admired and some quite unconventional for its day. After an overture that hardly suggests a serious opera, the curtain parts not on the usual opening chorus but on a sung prelude that better sets the opera’s tone: Stiffelio’s fellow preacher, Jorge, is reading the Bible and reflects on the godliness of Stiffelio. Then there are two duets (Act 1 and Act 3) between Lina and Stiffelio, which follow shifts of word and mood as surely as the Violetta-Germont duet in Traviata. Also much admired is Lina’s slow aria that opens Act 2, especially its orchestral introduction depicting a moonlit cemetery. Performed now as Verdi conceived it, the opera has proved a sensitive music drama, a worthy predecessor to the three that followed:  Rigoletto, Trovatore, and Traviata.


George W. Martin has written several books on Verdi, including his often reissued biography, Verdi, His Music, Life and Times.


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