sat 16/12/2017

Cavalleria Rusticana/Trial by Jury, Opera North review - sombre triumph and pale froth | reviews, news & interviews

Cavalleria Rusticana/Trial by Jury, Opera North review - sombre triumph and pale froth

Cavalleria Rusticana/Trial by Jury, Opera North review - sombre triumph and pale froth

Latest of 'The Little Greats' series is an uneven mix

Giselle Allen's Santuzza leads an Easter singalong in 'Cavalleria Rusticana'All images by Robert Workman

Pairing Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana with Gilbert and Sullivan’s Trial by Jury makes for a pleasingly schizoid evening in the latest of Opera North's The Little Greats series. Mascagni’s crashing final chords precede a longish interval, and when you re-enter the auditorium it’s not just the set that’s changed, but much of the audience. Karolina Sofulak’s Mascagni production is a sombre triumph, relocating the action from Sicily to a similarly repressed 1980s Poland.

Instead of Mediterranean sunshine we get harsh strip lighting and peeling wallpaper: Lucia’s village shop is a distinctly bare affair dominated by a large set of scales and lots of empty shelving. There’s the occasional consignment of sausage or bread, but the obedient queues are usually leapfrogged by the pushier male villagers, presumably waving party membership cards. The sense of confinement, of petty frustration, is tangible.

What’s more remarkable is how Sofulak’s cast physically inhabits the stage: Rosalind Plowright’s Lucia stands scornfully behind her counter, her clientele an anonymous grey gaggle, all drooping shoulders and headscarves. Some of the thrills come from the contrast between what the crowd looks like and how they actually sing: this company’s outstanding chorus have rarely sounded better. The bigger roles are superbly cast: Giselle Allen’s commanding Santuzza is initially a grey, peripheral figure, physically changing as her rage and frustration develop. Turiddù is a shifty Jonathan Stoughton (pictured below with Allen and Plowright), his vocal beauty ill befitting such a character.Scene from Cavalleria RusticanaThis is a brilliantly constructed, concise opera: you’re struck by how little singing there is at so many points. Characters here stare, brood and scowl. The Easter Hymn sounds sumptuous, a necessary interlude before the bloody denouement. Katie Bray’s Lola is a fragile, ephemeral presence, and the cuckolded Alfio’s beloved taxi is a vintage Fiat, retro-fitted to look like a Trabant. Marvellous, then, with some glorious playing from Tobias Ringborg’s orchestra – harpist Celine Saout deserves a shout out.

John Savournin’s Trial by Jury has some similarly bold ideas, but can’t help feeling like pale froth by comparison. Updating the action to the 1930s and presenting Angelina as a wronged MGM starlet works nicely, allowing Savournin to insert a brilliantly choreographed prologue with Amy J Payne’s journalist introducing the scenario as a Pathé newsreel. Angelina’s bridesmaids look like 1920s flappers, and there’s a superb jury. Sullivan’s score is most entertaining when he’s sending up stodgy 19th century oratorio, and it’s striking to hear how technically accomplished this one-act piece is. Nicholas Watt’s silver-tongued Edwin is a joy, jumping on tables whilst playing the violin. He’s matched by Jeremy Peaker’s Learned Judge, able to toss a straw boater across the stage with the ease of a professional Frisbee thrower. Amy Freston sparkles and shimmies as Angelina (pictured below with Jeremy Peaker), her light, clear voice utterly right for the role.Scene from Opera North Trial by JuryYet everything feels a little bit too busy, too frenzied. It’s difficult to hear many of Gilbert’s wittier couplets, and there’s so much happening on stage at certain points that it becomes exhausting to watch. This short divertissement would work better in a room above a pub, with a small cast and a piano accompaniment. Still, Oliver Rundell conjures bright, fizzing colours from the Orchestra of Opera North, and Charles Edwards’ ingenious, constantly shifting set is a source of pleasure. But I can’t imagine I’ll remember much about this production in six months’ time, whereas Sofulak’s Mascagni will prove difficult to forget.

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