Everyone at the OperaWatch offices in Northern Soul Towers agrees that it is great to be back at the opera. By all accounts, we missed a storming Falstaff due to an unexpected outbreak of Covid and a self-imposed lockdown.

With negative tests all round, it was with a great feeling of excitement and anticipation that I approached The Lowry basked in the golden light of an early Salford spring sunset. I was also excited because Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana is one of my all-time favourites and rarely off my walkabout playlist. It is said to be the opera that invented the mafia as it was originally set in a small village in 19th century Sicily (Corleone?). Francis Ford Coppola staged it as the opera in the last act of Godfather Part III, and Martin Scorsese used the Intermezzo in Raging Bull. There is something quintessentially Italian about it.

It was therefore a bold move by director Karolina Sofulak and designer Charles Edwards to relocate the action to 1970s Poland. Sofulak’s Polish heritage led her and Edwards to portraits of Pope John Paul II (the Polish Pope), the polyester of Polish fashion, the food queues of the five-year plan, and the Polski Fiat. A washed-out colour palette for a washed-up country.  

Photo by Tristram Kenton

Throw a little illicit sex into the mix and you have a tinderbox of sin, Catholic guilt and, in the end, violence. Turiddu (Andres Presno), the wayward son of shopkeeper Lucia (Anne-Marie Owens), has seduced Santuzza (Giselle Allen), a pious village girl, in anger at his true love’s (Lola played by Helen Evora) marriage to Alfie (Robert Hayward), local taxi driver and proud owner of a Polski Fiat. Turiddu reignites his passionate affair with Lola. In a pique of religious jealousy and confession, Santuzza tells Alfio of his wife’s infidelity. In true masculine injured pride, Alfio murders Turiddu. A plaintive ‘Turiddu e morto’ ends the opera.  

In another bold move, Sofulak and Edwards have paired Cav (as it is sometimes referred to) with Sergei Rachmaninov’s Aleko. It is bold as Cav is normally followed by short, tragic Pagliacci, known in the trade as Cav/Pag. Aleko was originally set in a nomadic gypsy community and is now a colourful, hedonistic hippie colony. Into this an armed Alfio appears, possibly on the run from his colourless Polish village. He is now Aleko (Robert Hayward) and married to wild child Zemfira (Elin Pritchard). It is a wonderful ensemble piece with the chorus of Opera North to the fore.

Underneath the libatious, carefree culture lies a dark Russian soul. Lusty Zemfira takes a young lover (Andres Presno again). Aleko is haunted by the ghosts of Lola and Santuzza who provide a portal between the two operas. Zemfira’s father (Matthew Stiff) explains the free wheeling philosophy: “we are wild, we have no laws”. When Aleko discovers Zemfira’s affair, he cannot escape his revengeful past and he shoots her and her lover. To paraphrase Wilde, “to be shot once Mr Presno, may be regarded as a misfortune, to be shot twice looks like carelessness”. Aleko is banished from the commune to a life of torment and loneliness.  

The evening had so many highlights. The energy of the orchestra, the coordinated power of the chorus, the sheer beauty of Cav’s intermezzo and the engaging performances of the main players –  none more so than Giselle Allen’s Santuzza. Her voice radiated raw emotion and an amazing range of tone. Her desperate attempt to woo back Turiddu and his rejection provided a towering duet of pure operatic delight. It will live long in the memory of this correspondent.  

Over the years, Opera North has given me many such memories and, for that, to paraphrase W.C. Fields, I am eternally grateful. 

By Robert Hamilton, Opera Correspondent

Main image by Tristram Kenton

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Opera North