For some reason, May 23 stuck in my mind. It was an important day, but I couldn’t remember why. At my age, this happens with frightening regularity. As I stroll towards Northern Soul Towers, I notice a large Polling Station sign on the door. Of course, it’s European Elections day and NS Towers is the Deansgate ward polling station. This means the OperaWatch trainee opera critics have the day off. I suspect many of them have not registered to vote, are too young, the Home Office has ‘mislaid’ their postal votes or they have been put off by the former’s hostile environment and fear of being deported for no good reason.

I vote (anti-Brexit Green, if you must know) and looked at the office diary. May 23 is also the opening night of Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci at the ever-creative Hope Mill Theatre. The Mascagni/Leoncavallo double header has long been a favourite of opera-goers as well as this correspondent and is affectionately known as Cav/Pag. This production is by the City of Manchester Opera who came to my notice only recently. They are a company of 30 or so pro, semi-pro and amateur singers. I like that they are a multinational group including French, German, Italian, Spanish and Russian performers. A Euro-shaped opera troupe and, if ever we needed one, now is that time.

City of Manchester Opera, Hope Mill Theatre, ManchesterThe bill opens with Cavalleria Rusticana. Set in a small Sicilian village at Easter, the story concerns the plight of the pious Santuzza (Lorna Rushton) whose marriage to Turiddu (Arron Long) is on the rocks since he’s been seen with the handsome Lola (Lynne Sellars), wife of local businessman, Alfio (George Hulbert). A right old Sicilian mess worthy of any episode of Montalbano. Santuzza confides her worries to mother-in-law Mamma Lucia (Claire Loftus), then finally, Alfio, who, in a fit of true blooded Mafioso revenge, stabs Turiddu to death in the orchard (ouch!). The performance is full of lyrical choral charm and dramatic arias. I was impressed by coherence of the chorus who sung beautifully, and by the commitment and vocal power of Lorna Rushton. Her Santuzza glued the opera together with her range and deeply felt pathos. A wonderful accomplishment.

After the interval, the mood is lightened by the arrival of a small group of traveling players performing Pagliacci. The character has long been the role model for the tragic clown. Canio (Ben Sweeney) plays Pagliacci in this play within a play. He is in love with Nedda (Sarah Williamson), who is also the target d’amour of Tonio (David Palmer), a 19th century Italian Weinstein.

City of Manchester Opera, Hope Mill Theatre, ManchesterIf this wasn’t enough to put a tragic spanner in our comic works, Nedda is in love with Silvio (Jordan Harding-Pointon). Nedda and Silvio, after a tender duet, agree to elope after the evening performance in the village square. Canio is told of her love for another by a jealous Tonio. Canio/Pagliacci in true operatic style, stabs both Nedda and Silvio. Sweeney’s performance of the iconic “Vesti la giubba” was outstanding. I was taken by Williamson’s Nedda, her vulnerability, tenderness and strength were all rolled into one with a cultured voice. David Brothers impressed as the sympathetic Beppe.

I thoroughly enjoyed my evening and I hope to see more of the City of Manchester Opera. Pagliacci finishes with the prophetic line: “the comedy is finished”, but having seen the results of the election, I suspect it isn’t.

By Robert Hamilton, Opera Correspondent