Passion vs. Piety, in Verdi's 'Stiffelio'

WOO-1618-Stiffelio-storyIt's often said that there are two subjects best avoided in polite company: politics and religion. Giuseppe Verdi may have known that better than anyone.

Today, we don't often think of opera as a source of controversy. But in Verdi's time, especially in Italy, operas were like today's movies -- big budget, lavish productions that were at the forefront of the entertainment world. And while Verdi didn't have a ratings board to deal with -- no danger of an opera getting the dreaded "NC17" -- he did have to fend off government censors, and the subjects of politics and religion were right in their crosshairs.

Verdi's 1850 opera Stiffelio explored one of those taboo subjects, religion, and it didn't fare so well. Its story concerns a charismatic pastor who returns from a mission to find that his pious wife has been cheating on him -- with a man who eventually winds up dead. It sent the censors through the roof. They preferred to keep religion out of the opera house altogether, and the notion of a zealous preacher getting involved with infidelity and murder definitely went beyond the pale. So the authorities demanded some drastic adjustments to the opera's story line.

At first, Verdi tried to go along with all the changes the censors tried to force on him, but after a few years he threw in the towel. He put the opera aside, then reworked its music into a very different drama called Aroldo, about a crusading knight in the middle ages. Verdi seemed to have given up on Stiffelio altogether. The original score was lost for decades, and people started assuming that Aroldo, which survived, must be the superior opera.

As it turns out, those people were wrong. Eventually, when Verdi devotees put Stiffelio back together, what they discovered was hardly surprising: Verdi had a far better grasp of what made a good opera than the censors did.

After decades of relative obscurity, Stiffelio began making its way back into the world's opera houses. Now, some listeners think it richly deserves its place alongside Verdi's next three operas: Rigoletto, Il Trovatore and La Traviata. That's not bad company for an opera that was nearly forgotten altogether.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Verdi's long-neglected Stiffelio from one of the world's most glamorous operatic destinations, La Fenice, in Venice. The stars are tenor Stefano Secco in the title role and soprano Julianna Di Giacomo as Lina, in a production led by conductor Daniele Rustioni.