“Stiffelio” by Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901).
The Metropolitan Opera, Saturday 23 January 2010, 8PM
I’ve said it before in these pages: The conductor can make or break an opera. In the Metropolitan’s current revival of Verdi’s “Stiffelio,” an almost unknown work, that conductor is Placido Domingo, once one of the “3 Tenors,” for whom the Met revived the work (as a singer) in 1993. Despite his obvious passion for the music, and his considerate accompaniment of singers (as only a fellow vocalist might empathize), he is not a born conductor. I won’t say that he “broke” the opera, but it turned into a rather inert object most of the time, lacking sweep, structural cohesion, and rhythmic spring, further weakened by regrettable pit/stage ensemble discrepancies.
The work was problematic in Verdi’s time. At the premiere in Trieste in 1850, the censors had a field day complaining that its plot, involving the adulterous wife of a priest, was scandalous and furthermore, that for the wronged husband to actually forgive the wife was impossible. The tinkering began. Direct references to scripture were expunged and so forth, but the mutilation took its toll. Almost a decade later, Verdi completely reworked the music, setting it in medieval Scotland and retitling it “Aroldo.” That version is even less well known than “Stiffelio.”
Verdi withdrew the score to “Stiffelio” and most everyone thought it was destroyed, but it was “rediscovered” in 1968, thereby providing the frisson of a “new” Verdi opera in the mid twentieth century.
“It is fortunate that in the clamor surrounding him, the artist, the true artist remains absorbed by his idea, listening only to his conscience; and it is also fortunate that often, among those that surround him, there are people who can tell him how the future will judge him. This is the genius’ revenge—it is not the present, but posterity for which he writes.” Jules Claretie (French critic, writing about Verdi)
Priestly celibacy became policy in the Middle Ages, around the twelfth century. However, in the “Eastern Rite” (Catholicism as practiced in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Ukraine) priests often are married. And even in today’s Roman Catholic church (since 1980), if a priest comes into the church from another faith that permits marriage, he may remain that way as a Catholic (evaluated on a case by case basis with special petition to the Pope). But in provincial nineteenth century Italy, out of the question! Verdi and his librettist set the story in a fictional evangelical sect in the western (Tyrol) part of Austria, having learned that a similar group historically had been persecuted there.
In Italian, a “stiffelio” (or “stiffelius”) is a frock coat, perhaps referring to the priestly garb that imprisons the title character in a self-righteous cocoon of desired vengeance, until his own sermon reminds him of Jesus’ injunction to forgive sin and sinners.
The singing had its good moments. Lina, the adulterous (most likely sexually neglected) priest’s wife, was sung by Julianna di Giacomo, and she produced some very impressive soft full bodied sounds. As Stiffelio, the “Argentinian tenor Messiah” José Cura sounded forced at times, though warmly lyrical at other times. I wonder what Gaetano Fraschini (1816-1887), the first Stiffelio, sounded like. The other roles were similarly fulfilled, but alas, not particularly memorable.
Am I the only one who is tired of these interminable black and white stark set designs? I felt like I was watching really slow television from the 1950s! Some color please!
“The artist must peer into the future, perceive new worlds amongst the chaos, and if at the end of his long road he eventually discerns a tiny light, the surrounding dark must not alarm him. He must pursue that path, and if occasionally he stumbles and falls, he must rise up and continue.” Verdi
© 2010 by Frank Daykin, for Innovative Music Programs