Earlier this year the Metropolitan Opera mounted a handsome production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera “Stiffelio”
. It was well reviewed, and what caught the eye, in the photographs published in the New York Times
at least, was the set created to represent the interior of a Reformed Church. It was Pieter Saenredam come to life.
But Wait, There’s More!
Turns out that Verdi’s 1850 “Stiffelio” is a neglected work of art. Because it was to be produced in Italy, its subject, a married Protestant minister, was controversial at the time. Therefore Verdi altered the original, and altered it more than once.
He muted the theme drastically, which was the adultery of a pastor’s wife and his forgiveness of her in the context of a service. There is also forgiveness offered, again in a public service, for the murderer of the pastor’s wife’s lover. The avenger is a devout Christian man who has taken the wrath of God into his own hands, then, stricken in conscience, seeks absolution for his crime. The pastor, Stiffelio, is a good man, a Mockingbird man in principle, who forgives on every count. The concluding scene of the play portrays the minister’s reading in church from the beginning of St. John, Chapter Eight.
Not until 1968, in Parma, Italy, was “Stiffelio” performed as it was originally written.
Isn’t this something? Verdi is saying, ‘Let’s hear it for the Protestants’. They’re sectarian and stand-offish — the opera calls them Ahasuerians, after the name of the Wandering Jew — and the minister has a beautiful wife. But when the going gets rough, when it gets really rough, they are able — at least their pastor is able — to return to the source. Lina, the straying wife, is forgiven; as is Stankar, who took matters into his own hands. Everyone is forgiven. The last lines of “Stiffelio” are “Forgiven! Forgiven!… Forgiven!”, with Lina rising to her feet, raising her hands to heaven, and saying, simply, “Almighty God!”.
Listening to the end, I thought of “Stromboli”
, an emotional film by Roberto Rossellini
. Like “Stiffelio”, “Stromboli” (1950) was controversial when it was released, for reasons arising from the same general sector of life. Like “Stiffelio”, Stromboli concludes with a desperate heroine, played by Ingrid Bergman, crying out for mercy, and finding it. She sees
God. Like “Stiffelio”, the ending of “Stromboli” packs an overwhelming punch. The mercy she finds is the mercy of God. As Stiffelio himself affirms: “God has spoken it!”
I recommend “Stiffelio”. It is available on CD
in more than one version. I also recommend “Stromboli”. It’s not available, in any version. But we are told that David Zahl can procure a copy to loan.