Sex, sects, adultery and divorce: 21st- century soap opera? No, 19th-century grand opera. We like to think we’re liberated in the way we confront the great moral and social taboos, but Verdi was there before us.
The wife of an evangelical preacher has sex with another (male) member of their tight-knit community. When the preacher discovers she has betrayed him, he files for divorce – a sign that he has lost faith not just in his religion but also in humanity.
The wonderful thing about Stiffelio – apart from its music, thrillingly brought to life under Mark Elder in this Royal Opera revival – is that it is so modern: this is the story of an idealised leader with a messy personal life, a story that deals unsparingly with deceit, guilt, pain and payback.
As in his portrait of a high-class whore in La traviata, for which Stiffelio was a trailblazer, Verdi deals with human flaws sympathetically but unsentimentally; his cynicism is reserved for organised religion.
He was speaking from experience. To contemporary eyes his unmarried partner, Giuseppina Strepponi, was at best an adulterer, at worst a “fallen woman”. And to those same eyes Stiffelio broke too many taboos. Verdi had to bowdlerise it (as Aroldo), consigning it to a century of neglect.
The Royal Opera’s 1993 production did much to re-establish Stiffelio internationally, but the work’s place in the Verdi canon is still hard to assess. The timbre is so typically Verdian that you can’t help exulting in it. And yet Stiffelio fails to touch the heights of his greatest works.
Elijah Moshinsky’s staging receives a worthy rather than a distinguished revival. Michael Yeargan’s decor and Peter J. Hall’s costumes still look good: transposing the action to a Nebraskan frontier community makes better sense than Verdi’s early-19th- century Austrian setting. But it deserves better singing than it receives here. José Cura, in the title role, sounds tight and technically edgy. Sondra Radvanovsky uses her beautiful soprano unimaginatively.
Reinaldo Macias is the more-than- useful Raffaele and Alastair Miles a solid Jorg, but the best performance comes from Roberto Frontali as Stankar, the father bent on avenging his daughter’s dishonour. Frontali has the stentorian intensity to show us what Verdian drama means. Can we please have him back as Rigoletto?