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Cavalleria Rusticana & Aleko

Mascagni (Cavalleria Rusticana), after Verga, and Rachmaninov (Aleko), after Pushkin

Opera North

Grand Theatre, Leeds

February 15-March 22, 2024: 2 hrs 45 mins

(Performances on February 17,20,22&24 in Leeds, March 6,8 in Nottingham, March 13,15 in Newcastle, and March 20,22 in Salford)


Party time: The chorus whoop it up in Opera North's production of Aleko. All pics: Tristram Kenton
Opera North's production of Aleko.cr Tristram Kenton
Party time: the chorus in Opera North's production of Aleko. All pics: Tristram Kenton

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Opera double bills are pretty rare: the one that established itself for many years was “Cav and Pag” – Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Leocavallo’s Pagliacci, both of them “verismo” works from the end of the 19th Century.

Opera North has tried to get away from that before, by pairing each with something else. In 2017 they did Cavalleria Rusticana with Janacek’s Osud, and this time round director Karolina Sofulak has revived her version of the Mascagni and paired it with an early Rachmaninov work, Aleko, written when he was 19.

The two are almost contemporary in creation and there are distinct parallels: in both a jealous husband commits murder when he learns of his wife’s unfaithfulness – in Cavalleria Rusticana he kills her lover, in Aleko he kills both of them. To point up the commonalities, the company has cast three singers in parallel roles: Robert Hayward is the jealous husband twice over, Andres Presno is the unlucky lover both times, and Anne-Marie Owens is Lucia in the first (the mother who sees the tragedy work out before her eyes) and A Woman in the second (who ends the tale philosophically).

More than that, Karolina Sofulak has set them in different times and places, but has Robert Hayward and Anne-Marie Owens in the same costumes in each, and brings in two women (the errant wife and the spurned innocent) from the first story to appear as silent ghostlike figures in the second.

Her production of Cavalleria Rusticana shifts it in both space and time from 19th Century Sicily to Poland in the 1970s – Catholicism is still the background, but it’s in the ‘greyness’ and scarcities of a subjugated society, as well as the treatment of young women, that she sees parallels. The only clear locale is a shop, and there is no visual equivalent of a church, just a wooden panel with a cross on it – for some reason, the scorned Santuzza’s former lover Turiddu (who is ultimately to die for his seduction of Alfio’s wife, Lola) climbs on to it with arms outstretched like a crucifix at one point, though I can’t see why.

With Aleko we are in an unspecified place, a little later, which converts the gypsy community of the original into a kind of free-living gang of Western liberals (quite a lot of denim, coloured shirts and short skirts among the costumes) where the title-role husband is a visitor, eventually banished for his crimes.

In 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. Andres Presno 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 Evora 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. 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.


More info and tickets here



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