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Cavalleria Rusticana/Aleko, Opera North review - a new foil for Mascagni | reviews, news & interviews

Cavalleria Rusticana/Aleko, Opera North review - a new foil for Mascagni

Cavalleria Rusticana/Aleko, Opera North review - a new foil for Mascagni

Overlapping casting in two tragedies of infidelity and jealousy

Colour everywhere: Robert Hayward as Aleko with Matthew Stiff as Zemfira’s father, Elin Pritchard as Zemfira and the Chorus of Opera North in Rachmaninov’s AlekoTristram Kenton

Opera North have a new pairing for Mascagni’s popular but clichéd Cavalleria Rusticana in this double bill: an early Rachmaninov one-acter, written when he was 19. The production of the former is a revival of the one seen in 2017 in their Little Greats season, and its director then, Karolina Sofulak, has returned to create this Aleko alongside it.

So interest is inevitably more in what she has done with the new piece, and, intriguingly, how she has used the overlapping casting of the two to find striking resonances in their stories.

Both are tragic tales of murder born of infidelity and jealousy, and were written in the last years of the 19th century. In Cavalleria Rusticana, husband Alfio kills his wife Lola’s lover, Turiddù, because of their affair – having been alerted to it by the pious Santuzza, who had thought Turiddù must perforce be hers, because she is carrying his child. That’s “rustic chivalry” for you, as the title says. In Aleko, the wronged husband of the title finds his wife, Zemfira, has a lover and kills both of them (there’s rather more to it than that, but the opera is based on a poem by Pushkin and is more about back-story and character than narrative action).

Andrés Presno (pictured as Turiddù, with Robert Hayward as Alfio, in Opera North's Cavalleria RusticanaIn Karolina Sofulak’s take on the Rachmaninov, the avenging husband is played by Robert Hayward, who was Alfio in the Mascagni, and looks the same person (albeit older), and Andrés Presno (just seen as Turiddù) is visibly the man who is Zemfira’s lover, while she introduces silent ghosts from the previous piece in the shape of its Lola and Santuzza, and finally we find Anne-Marie Owens, who was Turiddù’s mother (and keeper of the village shop) before, re-appearing to sing the Woman who comments as Aleko’s sad tale ends with his banishment from what was once an all-welcoming community.

In both cases the locale and time-frame are changed from their originals: in Cavalleria Rusticana we are in 1970s Poland, rather than 19th century Italy, and in Aleko the gypsy community drawn by Pushkin has become something closer to the present day, fulfilling dreams of freedom in some part of the liberal West. But the visual impacts of the two are starkly different: whereas in the former the Soviet-era world is cold and grey and the store is running out of food, in the latter there’s colour everywhere and a kaleidoscope of luminaires hang above a well-stocked bar; while instead of Mascagni’s drinking song as the only antidote to gloom, there’s fun and dancing. Two ways of life – but one tragic end.

I didn’t particularly warm to the presentation of Cavalleria Rusticana in 2017, which incongruously presents Turiddù posing against a wooden cross as a subject for communal devotion (there’s no church for the Easter Hymn crowd to emerge from), but the re-envisioning of Aleko goes a long way to making a rather over-extended and action-less piece into a watchable drama. (Rachmaninov at 19 was inclined to self-indulgence and at times sounds like cod-Borodin). I suspect that, despite the ghost figures and recycling of character costumes to produce parallels with its partner piece on this bill, the new production could also stand on its own with few changes.

Elin Pritchard as Zemfira in Opera North's AlekoIn some ways the evening is a celebration of Robert Hayward’s stage presence and artistry, as he performs the weighty roles of the two murderous husbands with equal impact and emotive power. Andrés Presno (pictured above as Turiddù, with Robert Hayward as taxi-driving Alfio) looks like becoming the new Opera North tenor of choice for youthful Italianate passion, and (apart from the occasional scoop up to a high note and moments of rhythmic waywardness) acquits himself very well. Giselle Allen, who sang Santuzza in 2017, returns to the role with sustained intensity and warmth, and Helen Évora charms us as Lola.

But it’s in the uncommon roles in Aleko that the best counterparts to Hayward’s are to be found. Matthew Stiff is noble in tone and eloquent in the long monologue by Zemfira’s father that introduces the story, and, most striking of all, Elin Pritchard is wonderful as Zemfira herself (pictured above left). She outshines almost everyone else on the stage in vocal power and purity, and throws herself into the role with exceptional passion and skill.

A great virtue of the whole evening lies in the conducting of the scores by Antony Hermus, Opera North’s remarkable principal guest conductor. The sound of the orchestra is vital and vivid, the speeds are flexible and exciting, and the chorus singing (trained by Anthony Kraus) magnificent. 

  • Further performances on 17, 20, 22 and 24 Feb in Leeds, 6 and 8 March in Nottingham, 13 and 15 March in Newcastle, and 20 and 22 March in Salford
The evening is a celebration of Robert Hayward’s stage presence and artistry


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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