Before Luisa Miller was staged in Naples, Verdi had offered the San Carlo company another work for 1850, with the new opera to be based on Victor Hugo's Le roi s'amuse from a libretto to be written by Salvadore Cammarano. But his experience with Luisa was such that he decided not to pursue this, and approached his publisher, Giulio Ricordi, with the proposal that he should work with the librettist on the possibility of an opera, Re Lear, which would be based on Shakespeare's King Lear and which had long been on Verdi's mind. However, by June 1850 it became clear that the subject was beyond Cammarano's ability to fashion into a libretto, and so it was abandoned. However, the commitment to Ricordi remained.
Verdi had returned to Busseto with many ideas in mind, among them a new opera for Venice, which included a request for a draft scenario from Piave based on Victor Hugo's Le roi s'amuse. plus several others of interest to him. However, it was the librettist who came back with the suggestion of Stifellius, and between March and May 1850 discussions with Piave proceeded until a sketch of Stiffelio was received. Verdi responded enthusiastically, proclaiming it "good and exciting" and asking: "Is this Stiffelio a historical person? In all the history I've read, I don't remember coming across the name." At the same time, it appears that Verdi continued to be fascinated by Le Roi s'amuse, a play which Budden notes as having been banned at its first performance: "it was, politically speaking, dynamite" but he adds that the Venetian censors had allowed Ernani.
Reactions to the choice of subject and how it worked as a libretto and opera have been fairly uniform. Musicologist Roger Parker in Grove describes it as:
- A bold choice, a far cry from the melodramatic plots of Byron and Hugo: modern, 'realistic', subjects were unusual in Italian opera, and the religious subject matter seemed bound to cause problems with the censor. [...] The tendency of its most powerful moments to avoid or radically manipulate traditional structures has been much praised.
Budden basically agrees, stating that "[Verdi] was tired of stock subjects; he wanted something with genuinely human, as distinct from melodramatic, interest. [....] Stiffelio had the attraction of being a problem play with a core of moral sensibility; the same attraction, in fact, that led Verdi to La traviata a little later.
Original poster for Stiffelio
As Stiffelio moved towards completion, Ricordi decided that it should be performed in Trieste. As the premiere approached, both librettist and composer were called before the president of the theatre commission on 13 November, given that the organization had received demands for changes from the censor, which included a threat to block the production entirely if these were not met. The original story line of Stiffelio, involving as it does a Protestant minister of the church with an adulterous wife, and a final church scene in which he forgives her with words quoted from the New Testament, was impossible to present on the stage, and this created these censorship demands for various reasons: "In Italy and Austrian Trieste ... a married priest was a contradiction in terms. Therefore there was no question of a church in the final scene...."
The changes which were demanded included Stiffelio being referred to not as a minister, but as a "sectarian". Furthermore, in act 3, Lina would not be allowed to beg for confession, plus as Budden notes, "the last scene was reduced to the most pointless banality" whereby Stiffelio is only permitted to preach in general terms. Both men were reluctantly forced to agree to accept the changes.