Verdi’s „Stiffelio“ in Berlin - a special opera with a turbulent history

Stiffelio, Giuseppe Verdi’s 16th opera, is regarded as a masterpiece by many critics. However, already its very premiere in 1850 brought the composer into conflict with the then influential political and religious censorship in Italy. The subject – adultery in a Protestant vicarage – broke a taboo at the time. Shortly before the opera’s premiere, the censors vetoed the performance – unless, of course, Verdi and his librettist Piave agreed to revise the libretto and musical pieces. They didn’t really, but, as they had no choice if they wanted to ever see their creation staged, they finally concurred. However, the corrupted version, performed under the name Guglielmo Wellingrode and void of all the powerful dramatic scenes, wasn’t met with great success. Frustrated by these obstacles to the work’s circulation, in a letter of 17 February 1856 Verdi asked his publisher Ricordi to forbid further performances and finally just withdrew the opera.

Verdi and Piave gave up on Stiffelio, but used it as the base for their new opera Aroldo (1857). Subsequently, Stiffelio was all but forgotten. Half of the score is preserved in the Archivio Storico Ricordi as part of Aroldo, but Stiffelio’s full score was long believed to have been lost; whatever full scores and performing materials were still preserved at the Ricordi rental archives were destroyed during the allied bombardments of Milan in August 1943.

But then significant portions of it turned up in a Vienna copy in 1985, and finally with Verdi's heirs in St. Agata in 1992. At last it was possible to prepare a full score of the opera as Verdi had originally conceived it. Stiffelio was first performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City in 1993.

On February 1, 2017 the Berliner Operngruppe – a group of opera professionals and enthusiastic amateurs dedicated to the staging of rare operas – performed Stiffelio at the sold-out Konzerthaus Berlin with support from Bertelsmann. The opera’s success with the audience, amongst whom were several ambassadors and many notable figures from Berlin’s cultural scene at the invitation of Bertelsmann, was unmistakeable. Berlin had to wait 167 years for Stiffelio to be shown; but this performance was worth the wait.