This revival of Verdi's once-lost opera features two great tenors: Jose Cura on the stage and Placído Domingo at the podium. Written in 1850 (just before Rigoletto) Stiffelio has gone from being an unknown, unheard Verdi work to a minor masterpiece.
Blame the censors for Stiffelio's long absence. Briefly: Stiffelio is a pastor. He leads a radical Protestant sect. His wife cheats on him. Her father kills the lover. And Stiffelio forgives her in church, from the pulpit. The censors nixed almost all of those plot points (except the cheating and the murder.) Verdi and his publishers withdrew the opera, (re-writing it as Aroldo) and had the extant copies destroyed. In the 1960s, an autograph copy was found in the composer's papers. The Met brought Stiffelio to the stage in 1993 with Domingo in the title role, and has revived occasionally since.
On Monday night, Jose Cura proved himself to be an excellent heir to Domingo, dominating the action from his entry. The character of Stiffelio is a bit more complex than your average Verdi tenor. This is an older man who must deal with his wife's extramarital affair, but stay true to his religious beliefs. There are many psychological, internal moments with fine acting nuances. Cura handled these well, but sounded most comfortable in the second and third acts when he could let his big voice rip through Verdi's arias and ensembles.
The real star of the night was Sondra Radnovosky, the American soprano who brought the right mix of piety, guilt and sex appeal to the role of Lina, the minister's cheating wife. Lina is still in love with her husband despite her infidelity. Radnovsky led off the second act with a memorable cavatina leading into a duet with tenor Michael Fabiano and the big duel scene/quartet in the graveyard. Also memorable: her duet with Cura in Act III, the scene where she signed the divorce papers, an action that you almost never see in any other Italian opera! Andrzej Dobber shone as role of Stankar, another in the long line of Verdi fathers who have difficult relations with their offspring.
Domingo knows this score back to front and showed it with his performance in the pit. He led the jaunty overture with gusto and supplied able support in the opera's trickiest moments. Particular highlights included the Act II quartet and the final church scene with its hushed choir and organ accompaniment.