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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Opera Review: Pulpit Fiction

The Met revives Verdi's long-lost Stiffelio.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The Cura-te: José Cura sings the title role in Verdi's Stiffelio.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2010 The Metropolitan Opera.

Two tenors are featured in this Met revival of Stiffelio, the Verdi opera from 1850 that had to wait until the 1960s to enter the repertory. The first is José Cura, who sings the title role in this revival. The second is Placido Domingo, who sang the part of the preacher Stiffelio when the opera premiered at the Met in 1993. Here, Mr. Domingo did duty at the podium, guiding the cast through the opera he helped make famous.

You can blame the censors in Trieste for the obscurity of this opera, which caused so much controversy that Verdi withdrew the opera from performance, and later revised it as the even less frequently heard Aroldo. However, coming between Luisa Miller and Rigoletto in the canon of Verdi operas, Stiffelio has gone from being a quick chapter in Julian Budden's authoritative The Operas of Verdi to the status of minor masterpiece.

Briefly, the title character is a Protestant pastor, and the leader of an obscure, devout and radical Anabaptist sect. His wife Lina has had an affair. Her father, also a member of the sect, murders Lina's lover. At the climax, instead of the usual bloody revenge that was expected in the operas of Italy in the mid-19th century, Stiffelio, about to preach from the pulpit, finds a passage in the Bible about forgiveness. He forgives her, and the opera has a less-than-tragic ending.

The censors (and the public) had real problems with this, and the opera was thought lost. However, in the 1960s, research in Verdi's personal papers unearthed an autograph copy of the score. The opera was a sensation: a Verdi opera that had never been heard! Its innovative plot was also embraced by audiences around the world, and a recording was made in the 1970s.

On Monday night, Jose Cura proved himself to be an excellent heir to Mr. 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. Mr.  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 straying. Ms. Radnovsky led off the second act with a memorable cavatina leading into a duet with the promising young tenor Michael Fabiano and the big duel scene/quartet in the graveyard. Also memorable: her duet with Mr. 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 and homicidal tendencies.

Mr. 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.

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