The QT

Thursday 20 June 2024
20/06/2024

Review: An Opera North double bill

David Whetstone was at the Theatre Royal to see Cavalleria Rusticana and Aleko, a unique pairing of operas by two precocious geniuses
The Aleko company. Credit: Tristram Kenton

Bloke pops his head round the door of the gents’ during the interval. “Goodness,” he chortles. “There’s as many in here as on the stage.”

A lot can be drawn from that observation.

The opera-going demographic does lean towards the generation for whom the loo is half time ‘must’ (although there were young heads in Wednesday night’s audience).

This particular Theatre Royal ‘convenience’ is rather less than that word implies, being of phone box dimensions.

And, yes, it was busy.

Not as busy, however, as the stage for much of the time during this double bill of operatic brilliance. As well as the soloists and the fabulous orchestra in the pit, Opera North has a Chorus of true quality which adds visual as well as vocal oomph to any crowd scene.

It’s not something you get in many theatre spectacles these days, with much doubling up. How long before we see AI-generated ‘people’ in the spear-carrying roles? Never, I hope.

Elin Pritchard as Zemfira and Robert Hayward as Aleko. Credit: Tristram Kenton

Back to the night’s action which paired old favourite Cavalleria Rusticana (Rustic Chivalry… actually something of a misnomer) with Aleko, director Karolina Sofulak having linked the plots in an ingenious and thrilling way.

From a modern audience perspective, opera may appear to have a 50-plus profile; but Pietro Mascagni was in his mid-20s when he wrote Cavalleria Rusticana and Sergei Rachmaninov just 19 when he wrote Aleko as a college exercise (in three weeks!).

The former production has been here before, in 2017, when it was paired with something else (probably Pagliacci, its normal bedfellow). Mascagni never wrote anything to rival its popularity, with the soaring, instrumental Intermezzo being one of those pieces you’ll know even if you think you don’t know opera (it’s part of the score of both Raging Bull and The Godfather Part III).

Rachmaninov went on to greater things so Aleko isn’t seen often and this is the first time Opera North have tackled it.

Any preconceptions you might have of grand opera (fancy hair, costumes, jewellery, glitter and glamour) are blown away by Mascagni’s tale of Mafia-inspired betrayal and revenge.

The director having transported the action to her native Poland in the 1970s, the curtain rises on a bleak scene with, to the right, the counter of a shop with seemingly nothing to sell. A mighty cross dominates proceedings.

Elin Pritchard as Zemfira. Credit: Tristram Kenton

The townsfolk are a drab bunch, bickering and jockeying as they queue for food. Meanwhile a young woman, Santuzza, besotted by shopkeeper’s son Teriddù, lurks below the cross, constant reminder of the influence of the Church on this hard-pressed community.

Teriddù, meanwhile, a boastful, boozy Jack-the-lad, is living dangerously, having taken up with Lola (Helen Évora), the wife of Alfio who comes on stage in a little red car and is plainly a guy you shouldn’t mess with.

The principals are brilliant, investing the tale with enough emotional angst to fill that gents’ loos a hundred times over.

Giselle Allen, returning to the role, makes you ache for Santuzza even as, out of frustration, she ruthlessly betrays the man she covets.

Uruguayan tenor Andrés Presno hits the high notes in every sense as Teriddù while Robert Hayward, at once cuckold and symbol of toxic masculinity, gives a controlled, magnetic performance as Alfio who returns – this the neat touch by Karolina Sofulak – as Aleko in the following opera.

This is set in what was originally inspired by a Roma encampment but looks like a hippy commune populated by folk in Caribbean colours, contrasting strikingly with the dull palette of its predecessor.

Andrés Presno as A Lover. Credit: Tristram Kenton

Aleko seems an uneasy interloper. He has a girl, Zemfira (Elin Pritchard) who has a lover – Presno again – and a father, played by the magnificent Matthew Stiff.

Once again, it doesn’t end well but the music is captivating and beautifully performed.

Good to see Opera North back and to see Anne-Marie Owens, who hails from South Shields, returning to Tyneside with a key role in each of these short but bracing operas.

Opera North perform the double bill again on Friday (March 15), alternating it with Così fan tutte.

And for next time…

A scene from Cavalleria Rusticana. Credit: Robert Workman

The Leeds-based company has just announced its new season which will see A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Ruddigore and The Magic Flute performed at the Theatre Royal between November 6 and 9.

Then there will be three more performances of The Magic Flute on March 6 and 7 next year, followed on March 8 by a single performance of The Flying Dutchman, a new production of Wagner’s opera directed by Annabel Arden and premiering at Leeds Grand Theatre on February 1 next year.

For tickets to this week’s remaining performances, go to the Theatre Royal website

@DavidJWhetstone

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