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Lessons Learned Through Verdi’s Stiffelio

Sometimes being innovative and being creative isn’t enough.  Sometimes you need persistence, luck, and fortitude—and more often than not, you just need to be in the right place at the right time. Just look at Verdi’s Stiffelio.

For the first time since its 1993 Metropolitan Opera debut, the Met presented Verdi’s seldom produced 1850 opera Stiffelio.  That it exists at all is something of a miracle, and that it turns out to be a terrific opera with a splendid if not absolutely top-tier Verdi score, is a delightful surprise.

Stiffelio did not begin life auspiciously.  Mid-19th century Catholic Italy was unprepared for a story (based on the play, Le Pasteur, ou L’évangile et le foyer) about a Protestant minister, Stiffelio, who divorces and then forgives his unfaithful wife.  The censors, despite Verdi’s will, insisted on changing Stiffelio into an orator and removing all biblical quotes and references–making the story dry and wringing the drama from the characters.

The premiere in Trieste was given a lukewarm reception, as were its subsequent performances, and Verdi asked that all copies of the score be destroyed.  A few years later, he reused much of the music in a new opera called Aroldo. While Aroldo was set in 13th century England and the title character was a crusader just returned from Palestine–it fared no better.

And that would have been the end of the story, had not bits and pieces of the score begun to surface in the 1960s, culminating in the discovery of an almost complete autograph of Stiffelio in 1992—upon which the Met production is based.

The Saturday matinee I attended was sold out and the cheers from the packed house would have probably continued until the evening performance—had the houselights not come up.  Tenor José Cura as the deeply conflicted title character, soprano Julianna Di Giacomo, his wife Lina, and baritone Andrzej Dobber, her father Stankar, headed a first-rate cast—all of whom sounded glorious and all of whom acted persuasively.  The great Met orchestra was ably led by the beloved tenor Plácido Domingo, who sang the role of Stiffelio when this production debuted 17 years ago.

That this opera is with us today proves that being proactive may entail putting something on the shelf for a while until it is rediscovered.



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