Giuseppe Verdi as was typical of 19th century liberal intellectuals was distinctively and typically anti clerical. Accordingly, the priests in his operas are not usually sympathetically portrayed. Here are a few depicted in different ways. Verdi’s first success, Nabucco, was about the Babylonian Captivity of the Hebrews. It starts in the Temple of Solomon. The Israelites pray as the Babylonian army advances on their city (“Gli arredi festivi giù cadano infranti” / “Throw down and destroy all festive decorations”). The High Priest Zaccaria tells the people not to despair but to trust in God (“D’Egitto là su i lidi” / “On the shores of Egypt He saved the life of Moses”). Zaccaria is a pretty mild exemplar of his species. He doesn’t play much of a role in the rest of the opera, but he’s not the devilish holy man of Verdi’s latter operas. The High Priest Zaccaria is sung by the Georgian Bass Paata Burchuladze
Stiffelio was an odd subject for an Italian opera composer. A protestant minister’s wife commits’ adultery. He’s appropriately outraged, but forgives her at the opera’s conclusion. The aria presented here is the one sung by Stankar the father of of the adulterous wife. Vladimir Chernov sings- Lina, pensai che un angelo – from the Met 1994 performance. “Lina, I thought that in you heaven gave me an angel”
Verdi’s Atilla is a display pieces for a star bass. I saw Sam Ramey in the title role twice in Chicago more than 35 years ago. He was great. The great conqueror is stopped dead in his advance on Rome by the Sudden appearance of Pope Leo. Leo doesn’t do much but look holy, but that’s enough. Pope Leo’s appearance. Ramey is Atilla yet again.
La Forza Del Destino has one of Verdi’s well meaning priests, but one who is also utterly ineffective. He helps wipe out the Vargas family, but does get to lead a glorious trio and the opera end. Forza Final Trio. The singers are Renata Tebaldi, Mario Del Monaco, and Cesare Siepi. Dimitri Mitropoulos conducts.
Verdi’s most fearsome priest is the Grand Inquisitor from Don Carlo. Martti Talvela and Nicolai Ghiaurov are the inquisitor and King Philip respectively.
The priests in Aida are as demonic as can be found in opera. In the Judgement Scene a posse of them is led by Cesare Siepi. Amneris who lacks nothing but the love of the man she wants most. She’s played in this excerpt by Elena Obraztsova.
Verdi was capable of great religious feeling when the moment was right. His requiem mass to the memory of the great author Alessandro Manzoni is as full of the plight of man as is any musical composition yet written. While not wildly optimistic, it does offer some solace to suffering humanity. Rex tremendae is from the recording under Georg Solti’s direction.