Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Cavalleria rusticana / Aleko review – Rustic Chivalry meets Russian Fate in doom-laden pairing

15 February 2024


Opera North’s revival of Karolina Sofulak’s 2017 production foregrounds unexpected contrasts, with superb singing, original staging, and exceptional playing

Cavalleria rusticana

Giselle Allen, Andrés Presno & Anne-Marie Owens (Photo: Tristram Kenton)

If you’re looking for Mediterranean heat and Sicilian atmosphere you won’t find it in Opera North’s revival of Karolina Sofulak’s 2017 production of Mascagni’s slice of torrid verismo. However, the passion and colour are all abundant in the orchestral playing under Antony Hermus, and the incandescent singing of the chorus and principals. The playing of the Intermezzo alone would distinguish this orchestra as one of the top opera ensembles. The austere setting of 1970s Poland, all stark balsa wood and dominated by a massive cross, forms a dramatic contrast to the world of Rachmaninov’s Aleko, all sunshine and laid-back hippiedom.

Cavalleria rusticana

Robert Hayward (Photo: Tristram Kenton)

Opera North distinguishes itself by its company ‘feel’, and these two operas make striking use of that, with the stalwart couple of Robert Hayward and Giselle Allen taking on the major roles. Hayward’s noble, burnished baritone and his committed acting have been seen and heard in many roles in this house, and as the betrayed husband Alfio in Cavalleria rusticana and the tortured loner in Aleko, he sang with unflagging power and deep sensitivity.

Giselle Allen was most recently seen here as Tosca, and she brought to the role of Santuzza the same fervid passion, in this case laced with martyred devotion. Her sense of abandonment in Mascagni’s burning phrases was absolutely gripping, and she mastered those near-hysterical high notes with room to spare. She was ably supported by Anne-Marie Owens as a stern yet sympathetic Lucia, and Helen Évora as a credible and evenly voiced Lola.

“The playing of the Intermezzo alone would distinguish this orchestra as one of the top opera ensembles”

Aleko

Aleko (Photo: Tristram Kenton)

Rachmaninov was only 19 when he composed Aleko, based on one of Pushkin’s narratives and displaying all the fervour of youthful passion; it’s not often performed, and the pairing with Cavalleria is an inspiration. The setting is a kind of commune which aspires to kindness and inclusivity but cannot stomach Aleko’s murderous deeds; it’s a chorus-heavy work, and there could be no better group to sing it than this 36 strong ensemble, superbly directed by Anthony Kraus and alive to every nuance of the score.

Aleko

Elin Pritchard (Photo: Tristram Kenton)

Elin Pritchard is the star of Aleko, singing with blazing intensity and giving her all in the difficult role of Zemfira. Her father is sung with noble tone and dramatic gravitas by Matthew Stiff, and Andrés Presno is a mellifluously voiced lover, here displaying a more honeyed tone than we heard in his singing of the slobby Turiddù in the first opera. The director has worked with the singers to mould individual characters amongst the chorus, and the result is a vindication of the inclusion of the work.

Since the first opera is devoid of local colour, the changes in tone and emphasis are dependent upon Charles Edwards’ lighting design, which brilliantly evokes the glaring brightness of the church interior, seen only as a backdrop, and equally suggests the flat, dull and impoverished lives of the people. Gabrielle Dalton’s costumes are superbly evocative of time and place, the drabness of the villagers in Cavalleria as convincingly detailed as the colourfully individual clothes in Aleko.  

It’s an engrossing evening of unexpected contrasts, with superb singing and original staging, and above all exceptional playing from an orchestra which can have very few equals in the UK today.

• Details of upcoming performances can be found here.


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