Opera / STIFFELIO Royal Opera House, London RIGOLETTO Hackney Empire, London

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The Independent Culture
This week Londoners had the chance to see both Stiffelio and Rigoletto - two middle-period Verdi operas originally premiered within four months of one another - within the space of as many days. Both have plots taken from the French stage, both treat "difficult" subjects (adultery, deformity), both boast pivotal father-daughter relationships, and both fell foul of the censor. Yet one is the real thing - hurtling on its irresistible way from the moment Monterone's curse first sounds out across the prelude; the other a collector's curio, full of hints of greater works to come - Otello in its priestly hero's propensity to jealous rage, Aida in the divisi strings of his adulterous wife's prayer beside her mother's grave, Forza in the way the Church continually cuts in on earthly passions - but yet to discover its own, unique voice.

Seeing the two together offered just the sort of constructive contrast you'd expect to find in so far-reaching a project as the Royal Opera's seven-year Verdi Festival. But you'd be wrong. The Rigoletto came courtesy of the tiny Tunbridge Wells-based Opera Company, braving the crimson magnificence of Matcham's Hackney Empire in the wake of the Almeida Hamlet; while the educational value of Covent Garden's own exercise in compare-and-contrast - a couple of performances of Aroldo, where Verdi reworked and expanded his Stiffelio material while defrocking the hero from Protestant minister into English crusader - is surely reduced by offering the later opera in concert only, a month after Stiffelio has ended. Compare and contrast with La Fenice, Venice, which staged the two works consecutively - on the same day. Now that's what I call a Verdi Festival.

Elijah Moshinsky's Stiffelio was, of course, originally mounted for Carreras. Maybe his absence explained all the empty seats on Monday (a last-minute coach party cancellation, one might have thought, if one didn't know that coach parties don't book pounds 102 stalls). Domingo arrives in July - for two public performances and a gala (private, but relayed free to the Big Screen). Until then, the Argentine tenor Jose Cura, a former prizewinner in Domingo's Operalia contest, is keeping his pulpit warm.

Cura may not be the next Pavarotti (or Domingo or Carreras either), but he could well be the next Mario del Monaco. A real tenore di forza, with a commanding stage presence and an unusually dark, burnished timbre, burgeoning unexpectedly into a brilliant ringing top, Cura is a real find, an Otello in waiting. Unaccountably, he was booed from the Amphi. Falklands veterans in the gods - whatever next?

How's about opera in 'Ackney, where a packed house, at just pounds 15 a head, greeted the Opera Company's new Rigoletto on Friday with a spontaneous eruption of stamping, whistles and cheers. Here's a company that puts its money where its mouths are, rather than wasting it on superfluous sets and costumes. Why, the girls at the Duke's orgy didn't even get tops to wear (though the budget did stretch to a little nipple glitter). The economy of Ashley Martin-Davis's designs - and what a great storm sky a sheet of black PVC can make - was matched by Dalia Ibelhauptaite's nakedly raw direction. Centre stage stood (or rather limped) John Rawnsley's Rigoletto - toweringly tragic in his fatal folie de grandeur, whether flaunting a defiled virgin's knickers in her father's face or stumbling blindly about, unaware that the oversize laundry bag he is carelessly dragging behind him contains his own child's corpse.

n Stiffelio: ROH (0171 304 4000) to 14 July. Rigoletto: 22 June Hawth, Crawley (01293 553636); 28, 30 June Theatre Royal, Brighton (01273 328488); and touring to Edinburgh, Tunbridge Wells, Bath