Opera in 3 Acts, Running Time: 1 hour 49 minutes. This opera is a little amazing. It was written just before the Verdi Big 3 (Rig, Trav, Trov) and just after Luisa Miller. It failed at its premiere not because of the music but because of the plot which concerns an incident of adultery by the wife of a Protestant Austrian married pastor. Italian audiences in 1850 weren’t interested in any of those four words describing anyone much less an opera. When it was transplanted and revised as Aroldo (1857), much of the plot and setting was changed but the music was mostly the same (except of course for a newly composed fourth act replacing the finale church scene in Stiffelio). Unfortunately the orchestral score was lost until the mid-1980s and so this version from 1973 involves a re-constructed orchestration. People familiar with the opera will notice that the second act simply fades out quietly into audience applause here whereas more modern performances include an orchestral crescendo at the end of the act. The recording under review is a live performance from 1973 with Mario del Monaco in the title role.
PLOT: Stiffelio is a Protestant sect leader who while on a trip has been cuckholded by a wealthy local man named Raffaele. His father-in-law, Stankar, a career soldier, is suspicious and his wife Lina feels really, really guilty (obviously). More than that would give away the ending except that there is a somewhat silly subplot in act 1 regarding a letter and for which tenor it was written.
ACT 1 52:30 minutes: Scene 1: A hall in Count Stankar’s castle (40 minutes)
0: The overture, one of Verdi’s top five **, starts soberly and with honour. Around mid-way through the strings starts to get a bit giddy (this will return) and there is a nice crescendo. You don’t really notice that this is probably Verdi’s first or second longest overture (10 minutes), somewhere between La battaglia di Legnano and Les Vepres Siciliennes.
10: Verdi starts the opera proper with a recitative for assistant pastor Jorg, this is one of the eariest operas to begin in such a way so it is worth mentioning *. We get a brief bit of the chorus that is about to come in as Stiffelio returns from his trip.
13: At first the ensemble (a septette) comes off as rather standard stuff but then Stiffelio goes off into a brief solo which gets interrupted by the other characters **, these interruptions become rapidly better and better in dramatic intensity, but the tenor melody Verdi has bestowed Stiffelio with is just wonderful.
16: Lina goes off high soprano on us really well, although I’ve heard other recordings that emphasize this line better.
18: There is a modified reprisal of the initial septette **, it crescendo’s very well.
21: A duet between husband and wife, he surprised that she has not yet addressed him (and later, where is her wedding ring?) she gives us an instant trivia bit (his name is Rodolfo). They go into some back story about how Stiffelio had to go undercover with his religious beliefs years ago. Much of this is recitative but then some agitation starts up in the strings and then when he discovers the lack of a ring he goes off rather well **. Much of the music here sounds not so much Wagnerian as mature Verdi, it has a strong dramatic power. This is the Verdi of Macbeth. Stankar takes Stiffelio away for a party in his honour. Then there is a brief scene in which Lina’s cousin Frederico bumps into Raffaele while looking for a book (this is important in the next scene.
28: Lina is left full of remorse and guilt over her adultery **. She decides to write a letter which her father (returning) attempts to intercept. I am not sure why but supposedly this is a different scene, or at least it is the same scene a while later, but this makes little sense.
32: Stankar is determined to preserve his and his family’s honour in spite of his daughter’s adultery, I think the theme is from the overture. This is good Verdi father-daughter music. Look out especially for when Lina starts off on some high soprano scales again **.
37: Stankar has another semi-aria which Lina takes up for the second half of the duet **. We are back to om-pah-pah though.
Scene 2: Same, decked out for a party (12.5 minutes)
40: The chorus takes up one of the melodies from the overture, it’s fun *.
47: Stiffelio becomes suspicious of the book and discovers that it is locked, so he declares that his sermon that evening will be on treachery. Admit all of this rage and fear we have an amazing crescendo **.
50: Stiffelio breaks the book, the letter falls out, Stankar takes it and Stiffelio threatens him if he doesn’t give him the letter, the old man refuses and Stiffelio goes off on him *** taken up by Lina, Stankar threatens Raffaele, everyone else is, rightly, confused and terrified.
Act 2: A graveyard, a church nearby, night. (25 minutes)
0: A very sobering prelude, sad moody music *, but not depressing.
2: Lina comes on in confusion, terror, and misery. Why is she in the graveyard? She sees her mother’s too. The orchestra, especially the strings, seem to be flying like a gondola on water throughout **.
9: Raffaele arrives and Lina freaks out pleading with him to leave her alone, but he declares that he loves her. Lina bursts into a good little waltzing melody **.
13: Stankar arrives and threatens Raffaele with a duel, the two men have a short ensemble * to a powerful crescendo just as Stiffelio comes in and stops them, he tries to get them to forgive the outrage but Stankar declares that this is impossible and that it is he, Stiffelio who has been more greatly wronged. Stiffelio is at first confused but Lina confesses everything and he is taken aback.
16: Listen for the declining low strings as Stiffelio announces his disbelief at what he has just heard, it will repeat as the quartet moves on **.
20: Stiffelio decides that he will fight Raffaele instead of Stankar, the younger man refuses to challenge Stiffelio and then suddenly the chorus can be heard from inside the church pleading for divine mercy to the first theme from the overture. Stiffelio changes his mind about vengeance, he becomes less forgiving of Lina though. Jorg pleads for Stiffelio to forgive just as God forgives which causes Stiffelio to collapse in a dead faint as the exclamation of the others fades into nothingness **.
ACT 3 (32 minutes) Scene 1: A room in Stankar’s castle (23 minutes)
0: Stankar wants to kill Raffaele and he is ashamed over his daughter’s unfaithfulness, he even starts to cry and after a rather effective cavatina ** writes a note and is about to commit suicide.
7: Jorg surprises him with news that Raffaele is coming to patch things up with Stiffelio, so the old man wants revenge again, in fact he rather yearns for it **.
8: The confrontation **, Stiffelio gives Raffaele an ultimatum, what would he do if Lina were free, marry her? He tells him to wait behind a curtain, little does he know….
12: Stiffelio gives Lina the option of a divorce (because he signed their marriage certificate under an assumed name) *** in a very impassioned duet. She doesn’t want a divorce, in fact, she says that she wants to die for Stiffelio’s love. She still loves him, and something about an odd pact that Raffaele made her enter into which constitutes her adultery. Realizing that his wife has also been betrayed by Raffaele he decides to kill.
21: It is to late, Stankar has already murdered Raffaele from behind the curtain, Jorge urges Siffelio to the church and Lina despairs that her sin will never be forgiven **.
Scene 2: The church interior. (9 minutes).
23: Typical church organ music as the rank and file enter. Chorus, Stankar, and Lina all praying for their respective forgivenesses ** but I will admit that it gets better as it goes on.
27: Stiffelio arrives to give a sermon, Lina is excited to hear his voice, he recognizes her. A trumpet keeps on escalating. Stiffelio opens a New Testament to the story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery, the music anticipates a little and then finally Stiffelio pronounces his own forgiveness of an exclaiming Lina, repeated by chorus **.
There are some confuses in the story, I still don’t know if Lina actually committed a physical act of adultery with Raffaele or if her betrayal was a lapse in emotional faithfulness or if he tricked her by pretending to be Stiffelio in order to bed her. Stankar is driven by his honor and a mad demand to avenge himself on Raffaele, his failed suicide attempt however does come off as genuine. One problem with the opera is that, after the comparatively long first act, much of the drama is rushed and it is somewhat fragmentary; the forgiveness scene is literally just long enough to provide mood setting and that finale dramatic punch, but just. The forgiveness aspect of the story starts to become a little (just a little) artificial by the end of the opera but there are two numbers (the first act finale and the annulment duet in act 3) which are absolutely wonderful and that is not to say that the rest of the score does not have great merit. Most of the numbers are constant 2-star out of 3 items, it is just hard here to find 3 out of 3 items. Stiffelio himself is somewhat all over the place both musically and as a character, and yet Verdi gives him some amazing vocal lines that start to border on a high baritone (foreshadowing Otello) and one should always be on guard waiting for something magical to happen in the strings (especially the counter-bass). Stiffelio goes from vengeance to forgiveness in rapid-fire succession and multiple times even within the same act. Yet again, would not any betrayed spouse act in an similarly erratic manner, at the very least before coming to terms with what has happened. Stiffelio is also provided with a rare moment for opera of male vulnerability when he faints in act 2. The music Verdi wrote here is some of his most advanced and puts to shame the accusations made after Don Carlos and Otello that Verdi had sold-out to Wagner. It is so unfortunate that the opera was subject to such vicious censorship because of its storyline, because there really is something wonderful going on. Here, as with Macbeth and even if less so in Luisa Miller, we have strongly dramatic music that fits the situation and sometimes even goes a bit beyond, one should particularly look out for several string movements when Stiffelio himself is singing. Although it lacks any of Verdi’s blockbuster tunes, the score is constantly very, very good and sometimes possesses a dramatic capacity unique to itself and which Verdi will not quite come to again for another 17 years, and for this reason Stiffelio earns a solid A.