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Opera North – Cavalleria Rusticana / Aleko – The Lowry, Salford

Reviewer: Phil Goodwin

Music Cavalleria Rusticana: Pietro Mascagni

Music Aleko: Sergei Rachmaninov

Director: Karolina Sofulak

Opera North’s double header of Cavalleria Rusticana and Aleko is natural pairing in many ways.

Mascagni’s turbulent mix of passion and revenge in Sicily finds echoes in Rachmaninoff’s freewheeling tale of love and jealousy among a band of gypsies. Both are the fruits of the post-Romantic verisimo tradition, both early offerings from artists in the flush of youth – the Italian aged 20, the Russian still a student of 19 – and both explore freedom within the confines of society.

What brings this double bill so powerfully to life is the way in which the two are narratively linked by making the titular Aleko and Cavalleria’s Alfio the same man – a character fated to repeat his crime of passion.

Director Karolina Sofulak first switched Alfio’s betrayal and retribution from 19th century Italy to 1970s Communist Poland in 2017 as part of the Little Greats season of one-act operas. Added to this, Set designer Charles Edwards fast-forwards the Russian gypsy settingof Aleko to a 1990s surf commune, run along the free-loving lines of Copenhagen’s Christiania.

This new staging allows us to re-encounter Alfio as the fugitive Aleko – 20 years older and seeking solace among another very different yet equally insular group.

Bass-baritone Robert Hayward adds complexity to the rage of this tortured figure who is haunted by his violent past, earning deserved applause for one aria when confronted by the unfaithful Zemfira. Tenor Andrés Presno is twice his victim: first as the jilted Turiddù then later as a laid-back, surfer-dude version of Rachmaninoff’s carefree Lover. Mezzo soprano Anne-Marie Owens is powerful as Turiddù’s mother, Mamma Lucia, returning at the blood-soaked conclusion of Aleko.

Helen Évora is convincing as Lola, genuinely torn between two lovers, while Giselle Allen is outstanding as the raging love rival, Santuzza. Elin Pritchard vows to follow her heart no matter the cost as the defiant and spirited Zemfira, the embodiment of the commune’s free-love principles.

Mascagni’s richly melodic score, with its famous intermezzo and drinking song, contrasts with Rachmaninoff’s powerful and passionate soundscape. The Orchestra of Opera North are excellent throughout, ably conducted by Antony Hermus, as are the Chorus. Sofulak sees Cavalleria Rusticana and Aleko as mirror images, reversed. So folding the two together turns the grey austerity of Communist Poland into the multi-coloured freedom of the 1990s.

The show deepens our understanding of Alfio/Aleko, a youthful murderer and perhaps a victim of a repressive society, who emerges as an older man, blinking into the light of a more tolerant, enlightened world only to sin again. Its two parts fit together well to create a powerful, affecting and enjoyable whole which resonates long after the final curtain.

Reviewed on 20 March 2024

The Reviews Hub Score - 80%

80%

Ingenious and affecting

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The Reviews Hub - North West

The North West team is under the editorship of John McRoberts. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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