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Richard Trinder
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2:15 PM 16th February 2024
arts

Opera North: Cavalleria Rusticana And Aleko

Two Operas Linked By Gruesome Tragedy
Robert Hayward as Alfio. Photo credit: Tristram Kenton
Robert Hayward as Alfio. Photo credit: Tristram Kenton
Cavalleria rusticana and Aleko, two notionally different operas, have been intimately linked in Opera North's excellent new production.

Cavalleria rusticana (or rustic chivalry) is a one act opera by Pietro Mascagni and is filled from end to end with lush, melodramatic and eminently hummable tunes; an ideal substratum for conductor Anthony Hermus to wind the Opera North orchestra all the way to 11. He does so with style - and it works. The orchestra were on top form and allowed the highly filmic score to pile on the passion.

Considered one of the classic verismo operas, Cavalleria rusticana deals with the lives of everyday people in particularly tragic situations, and is rendered with a highly dramatic performance. If this were Eastenders it would be the Christmas special.

All operas need a stupid idiot who should have listened to his mother and 'Cav' has Turiddù. Uruguan tenor Andrés Presno fullfills the role well, although it's hard to understand why his lover Lola, played by Welsh soprano Helen Évora, would ever fall for such a drunken buffoon.

Santuzza, Turiddù's fallback lover after he was jilted by Lola, is, however, quite a different proposition. She is deeply religious and utterly committed to Turiddù, despite his palpable failings. Santuzza is a meatier role than Lola and allows northern Irish soprano Giselle Allen to press home the emotion, and it was a thrilling thing to see and hear.

Giselle Allen as Santuzza and Andrés Presno as Turiddù
Giselle Allen as Santuzza and Andrés Presno as Turiddù
Santuzza is not a women to give in easily, and when she finally accepts that Turiddù is irredeemably lost she has her revenge by dropping a poisonous word in the ear of Lola's new husband Alfio.

Bass baritone Robert Hayward is an extremely effective Alfio; he has a presence and stillness that complement his magnificent voice. The few minutes where Alfio sits in his taxi on stage pondering his revenge on Turiddù were stunning. Robert Hayward didn't do much, but his brooding malevolence could be felt from the back of the auditorium.

Eschewing the Sicilian custom of biting each others ears, Turiddù and Alfio fight to the death and some gruesome, medieval form of honour is satisfied.

Aleko

Filled with colour and charm, Charles Edwards' set and lighting, and Gabrielle Dalton's costumes are a wholly different proposition to the stark reality of Cavalleria rusticana. Warm, rich colours and happy go-lucky people wander around the set drinking singing, procreating and smoking dodgy substances in an obvious reference to the alternative-life hippy colonies of 1960s California. Movement director Tim Claydon had plenty to do here.

Elin Pritchard as Zemfira
Elin Pritchard as Zemfira
How then is this happy atmosphere linked to the tragedy of 'Cav'? Well, rather neatly, the central character, the eponymous Aleko is played by Robert Hayward (previously Alfio) and the narrative could be considered as a development of Alfio's life - just some years further on.

Alfio is troubled, deeply troubled. Despite living in this happy, happy land with happy, happy people, he cannot shake off his guilt and distrust of others. His lover Zemfira (another excellent Welsh soprano, Elin Pritchard) ditched him - really, who can blame her - and he seeks revenge by murdering her new partner.

The chorus of Opera North has much more of an opportunity to shine in Aleko. As always they produced a superb performance in all disciplines: moving, acting and singing.

Cavalleria rusticana and Aleko continue at the Leeds Grand Theatre until 24th March then tour to the Theatre Royal, Nottingham, Theatre Royal, Newcastle and The Lowry, Salford Quays.

See the Opera North Website for details.