Opera North’s double bill of Mascagni and Rachmaninov was given highly engaging performances

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Opera Double Bill – Mascagni, Cavalleria rusticana & Rachmaninov, Aleko: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Opera North / Antony Hermus (conductor). Lyric Theatre, The Lowry, The Quays, Salford, 20.3.2024. (MC)

Giselle Allen (above centre right, Santuzza) in Cavalleria rusticana © Tristram Kenton

Production (both operas):
Director – Karolina Sofulak
Sets and Lighting – Charles Edwards
Costumes – Gabrielle Dalton
Choreography – Tim Clayton

In opera a time-honoured tradition is to pair Mascagni’s much-loved gem Cavalleria rusticana (1890) with Leoncavallo’s equally admired Pagliacci, a famous coupling affectionately known known as ‘Cav and Pag’. It is not unusual for Opera North to programme opera double bills and this season the company selected Cavalleria rusticana to be paired with Rachmaninov’s Aleko (1893) a much lesser known work. Although one has an Italian libretto and the other is in Russian, each is styled in the verismo tradition that concentrates on realism, which involves the everyday lives of ordinary people in emotionally intense and often violent scenes. In my view Cavalleria rusticana and Aleko function splendidly as companion works and I was delighted that each was sung in Italian and Russian, respectively. In the librettos with a similar plot the emotional drama involves gritty scenes of love and lust, infidelity and jealousy, bloody killing for revenge and honour. It comes as no surprise to discover that pairing these Mascagni and Rachmaninov operas, isn’t new, and I notice the Israeli Opera performed this same double bill at Tel Aviv in 2022.

This Opera North production of Cavalleria rusticana is a revival of the 2017 staging by director Karolina Sofulak and her design team Charles Edwards (sets) and Gabrielle Daltonown (costumes). In 2017 Cavalleria rusticana was doubled billed with Sir Arthur Sullivan’s comic opera Trial by Jury (1875) a rather unlikely pairing. As well as Cavalleria rusticana director Sofulak and her designers were also responsible for this new staging of Aleko. Using a different set for each opera Sofulak had devised dramaturgical connections between the two. This was a double casting as the five principals in Cavalleria rusticana also appeared in Aleko wearing the same clothes. Specifically, Robert Hayward and Andrés Presno had principal roles in both operas while the remaining three principals Giselle Allen, Helen Évora and Anne-Marie Owens were noticeable amongst the Aleko ensemble.

Cavalleria rusticana
Santuzza – Giselle Allen
Turiddu – Andrés Presno
Lola – Helen Évora
Alfio – Robert Hayward
Mamma Lucia – Anne-Marie Owens

Mascagni hit the big time with Cavalleria rusticana by winning the first prize in a competition sponsored by the publisher Sonzogno, with a sensational debut at Rome in 1890. Mascagni’s librettists Giovanni Targioni-Tozzetti and Guido Menasci based Cavalleria rusticana on Giovanni Verga’s short story of the same name set in a nineteenth-century Sicilian village. This is a strong and passionate tale of love, lust, betrayal and revenge that results in Turiddu being murdered.

Here director Sofulak has chosen to bring the era forward in time to Soviet Poland with designer Edwards creating an austere looking set. As Roman Catholicism is the primary religion there was a picture on a wall of the Polish Pope, John Paul II, who had been elected in 1978, so the date was sometime after, and likely around 1980 as the style of the clothes seemed to confirm. A large Latin Cross some four metres tall represented the town church. On the left side of the stage was Mamma Lucia’s shop Sklep Lucyna, a key focus of the production, selling a limited range of food and drink including vodka. Due to food rationing, there were long queues outside the shop although there seemed to be more contraband items under the long counter than legitimate goods on the shelves. Pushed on and off the stage and looking in poor condition was Alfio’s Polski Fiat taxi. In recent times I have lost count of productions where similar forms of transport were used onstage.

Although I have enjoyed Cavalleria rusticana in traditional settings I am open to a director choosing a different location and era. Nevertheless, by eschewing the original set for a Polish town, Sofulak missed out on providing the steamy, claustrophobic atmosphere that the Mediterranean Sicilian village so often provides and gained nothing really in return.

Northern Ireland soprano Giselle Allen sang the lead role of Santuzza as she did in the 2017 Opera North production. Not only is Allen a fine singer she is also a talented actor too with a natural stage-presence. Initially looking composed Santuzza, who has been excommunicated by the church, soon transforms into a wild and passionate woman who has been badly wronged. Creating high drama Allen’s singing had a captivating quality and she even sang while lying on the floor.

The lead role of Turiddu was taken by Uruguay tenor Andrés Presno who had long, dark hair and was thickly bearded. Protected by his mother, Turrido was fond of drinking and came across as a spoilt brat, self-centred and disrespectful of women. The scene when Turiddu placed himself against the front of the illuminated cross was quite effective, yet it seemed to have little relevance. A fine actor Presno gave a wholehearted performance and his voice, although a touch reedy, was in reasonable condition. British-Cuba mezzo-soprano Helen Évora sang the role Lola. This young woman although married to Alfio was having an affair with Turiddu. Portraying Lola as a downtrodden woman flattered by the male attention Évora sang attractively, displaying splendid control, if rather underwhelming.

Alfio, the taxi driver married to Lola, was given a stalwart performance by Robert Hayward who demonstrated his solid and reliable baritone had impeccable pronunciation. One sensed that the darkly brooding Alfio was hardwired to be quick tempered. Mamma Lucia the shop owner was a role made for mezzo-soprano Anne-Marie Owens. Experienced in the ways of the world, Lucia appeared rather dour and could only see the best in her son Turiddu.

Zemfira – Elin Pritchard
A lover – Andrés Presno
Zemfira’s father – Matthew Stiff
A woman – Anne-Marie Owens

The libretto for Rachmaninov’s Aleko written by Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko is based on Pushkin’s famous narrative poem The Gypsies (1824). This is the same source that inspired numerous operas and notably Leoncavallo’s verismo opera Zingari (1912). Pushkin set The Gypsies in Moldavia involving a gypsy camp, a tale corresponding to Mascagni’s story of life in a Sicilian village. Biographer Geoffrey Norris has commented how close Rachmaninov’s libretto to Aleko is to Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana a work which was greatly admired in Russia.

Written in 1892 during his time at the Moscow Conservatory Aleko served as Rachmaninov’s graduation work, receiving its premiere the next year at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre. The first of his three operas Aleko never gave its composer any success. Fugitive Aleko is exiled from his country, arrives at Bessarabia, and joins a group of gypsies at their encampment. Aleko enjoys the freedom of the lifestyle, and he and gypsy girl Zemfira become lovers. When Aleko discovers Zemfira with another man, his jealousy results in him murdering them both.

Robert Hayward (front right, Aleko), the Aleko company and the Chorus of Opera North © Tristram Kenton

Stage director Karolina Sofulak set Aleko in the 1990s in what she has described as ‘a commune based partly on beach and desert settlements in the USA, partly on Freetown Christiania the Danish “intentional community” that were established in the 1970s.’ I was able to imagine that Alfio, the murderous taxi driver from the constrictive world of Cavalleria rusticana has been freed, or escaped, from prison. Now named Aleko he has been transported to the freedom of the commune found in Aleko. In contrast to the blandly coloured set he produced for Cavalleria rusticana designer Charles Edwards created for Aleko one of the most colourful sets that I have encountered in opera. There was what looked like a beach bar, close to a sign over an entrance in a boundary wall reading ‘The World is in Our Hands’. On the left of the stage on the floor was Zemfira and Aleko’s space, consisting of a clothes rail and a double mattress, the scene of Zemfira’s infidelity.

Returning to the stage Robert Hayward sang the eponymous role of Aleko an incomer to the commune who lives with Zemfira. Although a talented baritone who impressed with Aleko’s cavatina, Hayward did appear a bland and rather forlorn figure onstage before springing to life with his deadly revolver. The love interest was the blonde haired Zemfira wearing a blue pinafore dress over a white t-shirt. Elin Pritchard a soprano from Wales put her heart and soul into the passionate role and displayed an even vibrato with a strong and secure tone.

Andrés Presno reappeared with even longer dark hair and a blue boiler suit as the unnamed lover of Zemfira. As Zemfira’s father, decked out in a colourful Hawaiian shirt, Matthew Stiff seemed rather rooted to the spot. In Stiff’s monologue there was an engaging quality to his bass-baritone voice, revealing an attractive and smooth tone to positive effect. Cast in the role of the Woman, Anne-Marie Owens sang a convincing condemnation of Aleko the murderer.

All evening under the baton of principal guest conductor Antony Hermus the Orchestra of Opera North were in outstanding form. Especially enjoyable were the marvellous solo contributions from the wind players. Coached by Anthony Kraus, the Chorus of Opera North maintained its reputation for excellence.

At the Lowry Salford this was a highly rewarding night at the opera. Opera North’s double bill of Mascagni warhorse Cavalleria rusticana and Rachmaninov’s far lesser known Aleko were given highly engaging performances.

Michael Cookson

Featured Image: Giselle Allen (Santuzza) and Andrés Presno (Turiddu) in Cavalleria rusticana © Tristram Kenton

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