An Opera Called “Harold”

Verdi's Aroldo this Saturday at 1.30 PM on Classical 101.(Photo: ArkivMusic)
Verdi's Aroldo this Saturday at 1.30 PM on Classical 101.(Photo: ArkivMusic)

Seriously, it’s one thing to be called Carmen, or La traviata, or Die Walkure, but what’s up with an opera called Harold? Find out Saturday at 1:30 pm on Classical 101.

To be fair, this opera is really called Aroldo. Like that helps. But it’s an excellent story, attached to a ridiculous plot, even for opera.

Giuseppe Verdi was near the top of his game when he was asked to write an opera for Venice, one of Europe’s great musical centers. As ever, the composer spent most of his time looking for worthwhile subjects. A play called Stiffelius looked interesting, if unlikely, for an Italian composer. It’s the story of a Protestant pastor who forgives his wife her adultery, ending with a sermon of the “cast-the-frst-stone” type.

Verdi’s opera became Stiffelio. After a run through the 1860s, our pastor and his wife and her lover dropped off the face of the earth. Verdi continued to have enormous success, up to his death in 1901. But Stiffelio went unperformed.

That is until 1976 when my old boss and mentor, Sarah Caldwell, gave the American premiere. Therein lies several tales.

Jo Vickers, the great Canadian tenor, would take the title role. Anna Moffo was opera’s most beautiful soprano, but she was in the midst of a vocal crash and burn. She attempted a comeback as Lina. 

Long story short, Vickers said this opera was too difficult and left town. A guy from the chorus sight-read. Moffo lasted through two performances, lost what little voice she had left and went back to Park Avenue. A lady from the chorus sight-read.

Stiffelio had been plagued by problems with the Italo-Austrian censors in Verdi’s day. You can’t show a pastor on the stage. You can’t have his wife an adulteress, married clergy in Catholic Italy was bad enough. The wife can’t be forgiven. She at least has to be burned at the stake, preferably capping the flames with a high D. No wonder Giuseppe Verdi walked away.

And yet, there was to much good music in Stiffelio to waste. The censors demanded radical changes of text and plot but left the music alone. The revised Stiffelio became Aroldo.

Our Lutheran pastor in 19th century Switzerland became a medieval knight en route to the crusades. Lina became Mina and her music was expanded. She’d be dolled up like Guenevere, rather than the simple dresses of a good Lutheran wife. Forget the short black coats. Bring back the chain mail, tunics, and swords.

Aroldo premiered in Venice around the time Verdi was working on La traviata. The censors shut up. Audiences that liked Stiffelio liked Aroldo. But I suspect even Verdi had enough and both operas were forgotten.

We’ll hear a 1979 performance of Aroldo recorded in Carnegie Hall, with Montserrat Caballe, Gianfranco Cecchele and Juan Pons. Eve Queler conducts the Opera Orchestra of New York. My first job in New York, also in 1979,  was with Eve Queler. Oy. That’s another story.

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