Verdi Bicentennial: What’s a Stiffelio?

Sarah Caldwell (1924-2006) on the cover of Time in 1975(Photo: Time)
Sarah Caldwell (1924-2006) on the cover of Time in 1975(Photo: Time)

If you write an opera called Stiffelio,  you’d better be sure it’s a good opera.

Giuseppe Verdi wrote a three-act tragedy based on the play Stiffelius back in 1850. The story is  the tale of a Protestant pastor who forgives his wife her adultery. There is a very effective closing scene, as Stiffelio preaches the gospel of the woman taken in adultery and proclaims that Christ pardoned her. “Perdonate! Perdonate!” he cries as his wife makes her way toward him down the church aisle.  Handled right,  this is a simple and moving scene.

Stiffelio has been called Verdi’s forgotten opera. Until very recently it was  never performed. The 1850 premiere was ruined by the Austrian censors active in Trieste. They demanded so many changes (a minister with a cheating wife, indeed!) that Verdi lost interest and moved on.

I discuss the opera itself elsewhere.

I’m here to tell you however, that Stiffelio is not forgotten,  silly title and all. This writer sang in the chorus of the American staged premiere. Sarah Caldwell directed and conducted Stiffelio with her Opera Co. of Boston in 1976. Sarah was one of those people who could make a cheese souffle out of peanut butter, graham crackers and a turnip. She never paid the bills. Her theater was a movie house in a bad part of Boston. Porno on Tuesday, Opera on Wednesday. The dress rooms were the stinking back alley. Never mind.

Such was Sarah’s creativity that she attracted big name singers. Stiffelio was to star the Canadian tenor Jon Vickers. He was still at the height of his powers in 1976. Soprano Anna Moffo would sing Lina. In 1976 she remained the most beautiful and glamorous figure in opera. She had lost her voice at least five years earlier, due to over work and poor training. Stiffelio was meant to be her big comeback. No fool she, Anna married the CEO of RCA, Robert Sarnoff just as her voice was starting to go. I expect Mr. Sarnoff financed a good bit of Stiffelio.

Jon Vickers never came to Boston. He sent word from his estate in the Bahamas that having studied the score he was convinced the part was too difficult. Imagine Woody Hayes fearful of a Pop Warner game. No Vickers, no opera. NOBODY sang this opera in 1976. Moffo arrived and everybody else began  to rehearse without the title character. Sarnoff worked the phones and his wife on was every talk show and interviewed by every paper, pushing her major comeback after “an illness”.

Long story short. Glamorous and diva like in public, Anna Moffo was warm and kind and professional in rehearsal. It was clear to all of us she was still in vocal difficulty. Remember there was no leading man. Eventually, Sarah forced the role on a young tenor and he valiantly went on. He did himself nor the audience any favors, poor guy. Miss Moffo sang one performance. Her voce quit completely mid way of performance 2. A chorister sang from the wings. Moffo went home to Fifth Avenue and RCA, and Stiffelio limped on the understudies.

With all of that, it was clear this was a wonderful opera. It’s hard to cast. Still unfamiliar, it demands accomplished singers-and they are expensive and you can’t bounce their cheeks as Sarah did to the rest of us. Nevertheless it was a good-looking, well costumed production. The media who came for Moffo stayed for Verdi. Bad luck with casting also plagued Verdi himself but in 1976 it was okay for a pastor to have  cheating wife onstage.

Sarah Caldwell died in March,  2006. Anna boffo had died a few weeks earlier. Her marriage to Robert Sarnoff appeared to be very happy and lasted until his death in 1997. She continued to sing occasionally. I hope it brought her joy. The Opera Co. of Boston closed its doors in 1991. Stiffelio arrived at he Metropolitan in 1993. I remember being annoyed that all the press coverage ignored the 1976 Boston production. Phooey. We got there first.

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