Verdi’s 16th (depending on how you count) opera has the oddest libretto of any he used. The action takes place in and around a castle in Salzburg that is the headquarters of a fictional Protestant sect headed by its minister Stiffelio who also uses the alias Rodolfo Müller. Both his wife Lina and her father (Stankar) who owns the castle address him as Rudolfo from time to time. Francesco Piave’s libretto was adapted from the French play Le Pasteur, ou L’Évangile et le foyer by Émile Souvestre and Eugène Bourgeois, which had been translated into Italian by Gaetano Vestri as Stifellius. It centers on the adultery of Stiffelio’s wife with Raffaele which happened just before the opera begins.
The opera turns on the conflict that Stiffelio feels as a cuckolded husband compared with his obligation to forgive as a Christian minister. After much turmoil, including the murder of Raffaele by Stankar (who says he killed the seducer in a duel), Stiffelio forgives his errant wife. He reads the famous passage from the Gospel of John (7:53-8:11) about the woman taken in adultery. He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. The libretto gets the passage wrong. Stiffelio says that as the woman was forgiven he forgives his wife. Jesus says I [do not] condemn thee: go, and sin no more. There’s no forgiveness here. In this production Stiffelio walks out of the church after he forgives Lina. I don’t see a long and happy marriage ahead. He still has the divorce papers they both signed in the previous scene.
Stiffelio had a terrible time with the censors. So much of the original story had to be removed that it was very hard for an audience to understand how Lina came to sin and what the extenuating circumstances she briefly mentions might have been. After the opera’s first run in Trieste it appeared the following year (1851) under the title Guglielmo Wellingrode. Then Verdi rewrote the opera to a crusader theme – Aroldo. Then he gave up on the piece and it was so neglected that its autograph score was lost. It wasn’t found until 1992. The new critical edition which resulted from the discovery of the autograph was used by the Metropolitan Opera for its first ever performance of Stiffelio in 1993 with Placidio Domingo in the title role. In 2010 Domingo conducted a revival of the production with José Cura as the title character. Were Stiffelio not by Verdi, it would not be staged as its good parts do not add up to a compelling whole.
Stiffelio was the first Italian opera to be set in the present, not La Traviata as is commonly assumed. And unlike Traviata, its first production staged it in the present, ie mid 19th century. In the Parma mounting designer Francesco Clacagnini dresses these operatic Protestants in costumes that resemble those of the Amish. Everything is black (mostly) and white except for the garb of the seducer Raffaele – see below. This is a strange version of an austere Protestant sect, they’re constantly crossing themselves. The sets are as austere as the costumes and make use of few props in mostly open space. They are also in black and white.
The title role requires a spinto tenor and has vocal demands about equal to those of Don Alvaro in La Forza Del Destino. Roberto Aronica sang the title role. He has appeared in 50 performances at the Met between 1998 and 2008. All were in lyric tenor parts. His impersonation of Stiffelio was stolid – both his acting and his singing. He has the vocal heft needed for the part, but his voice alone would not be sufficient reason to revive Stiffelio.
The same competent singing was characteristic of Chinese soprano Guanqun Yu’s portrayal of Lina the delinquent spouse. She sang four performances as Leonora in Il Trovatore at the Met in the fall of 2012. Her vocal production is good as is her technique. She’s very young and it’s hard to tell how her voice will develop. She shows a lot of promise.
The best singing came from Roberto Frontali. He has sung 81 performances at the Met. His last appearance there was as Rigoletto in 2009. Frontali has a bright and large baritone. His sound is rich and focused. He was Stankar, Stiffelio’s father-in-law who feels dishonored by his daughter’s peccadillo. The role does not lie as high as many of Verdi’s other baritones. Frontali sailed through it with ease. He got the best audience reception of any of the principals. Unfortunately, his part contains more bluster than melodic delineation and beauty.
Gabriele Mangione played the comprimario role of Raffaele the seducer. He was the only player to wear a colored costume. You can work out the symbolism for yourself. He has a light voice that did well in what is a fairly large secondary role. He gets to be the fourth member of the second act quartet Ah no e impossibile one of the best numbers in the opera. Stiffelio pours out his horror at the realization of what his wife has done, She’s remorseful, Stankar’s out for blood, and Raffaele is defiant.
The performance was energetically led by the Italian wunderkind conductor Andrea Battistoni who was 25 years old when this recording was made. Battistoni is a born Verdian. His orchestra was crisp and punctuated the action with fire and lyricism.
The best music in the opera is the adagio half of the concertato finale to Act 1 – Oh, qual m’invade ed agita. Here Stiffelio wants his wife to give him the key to a locked volume that he thinks contains an incriminating note. He’s very suspicious that Lina has been up to no good. This is one of the finest large ensembles in Verdi’s entire output.
Finally, here is the end of the opera. Stiffelio, to everyone’s amazement including I think his own, forgives Lina after reading the verses from John cited above. It concludes with’Perdonata’. Stiffelio Act 3 finale The ending seems a little abrupt and is not as imaginative as many of Verdi’s other concluding passages.
This fine production is aimed at those who must have everything written by Verdi. After this opera Verdi, in Benjamin Britten’s word, seems to have discovered the secret of perfection.
Stiffelio – Roberto Aronica
Lina – Guanqun Yu
Stankar – Roberto Frontali
Raffaele – Gabriele Mangione
Jorg – George Andguladze
Federico di Frengel – Cosimo Vassallo
Dorotea – Lorelay Solis
Parma Teatro Regio Chorus and Orchestra
(chorus master: Martino Faggiani)
Andrea Battistoni, conductor
Guy Montavon, stage director and lighting designer
Francesco Clacagnini, set and costume designer
Recorded live at the Teatro Regio di Parma, 18 and 24 April, 2012