‘Cavalleria rusticana / Aleko’: a blood-soaked double-bill of two haunting crimes of passion

25/02/2024

Isabel Urding (she/her) reviews Opera North’s recent opera double-bill

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Image by Tristram Kenton

By Isabel Urding

Fractured by a love turned fatal, the two insular societies of Cavalleria rusticana and Aleko evoke passionate melodrama in Opera North’s red-blooded production of murderous jealousy.

In her transposition of Cavalleria from a Mediterranean Sicilian village to the austerity of 1970s communist Poland, director Karolina Sofulak balances the rich opulence of Pietro Mascagni’s operatic score against a set that is drained of colour. The utilitarian aesthetic of the often-empty Sklep Lucyna, and the peeling wallpaper of the newlyweds’ home is shadowed by an imposing wooden cross in the centre of the stage. Set on Easter morning, the intensity of the Catholic iconography does not let you forget it. It is under the striking fluorescent lights of the Cavalleria set and the overarching presence of the church that Turridù and Lola engage in a love affair.

Whilst visibly torn between her love for the dignified Alfio, and the passionate Turridù, it is not the enigmatic Lola, but rather Giselle Allen’s Santuzza who appears with the most soul-shaking emotion. The betrayed wife of Turridù who is introduced to us in her humble piety as she kneels before the cross is far from merciful in her bloody satisfaction as she tells the incensed Alfio of his wife’s infidelity. The embittered Santuzza provides an atmospheric echo to the melodrama of this opera, with rich evocations of Mary Magdalene as she puts her Turridù up on the cross.

Sofulak’s coupling of Cavalleria with Rachmaninoff’s Aleko conceives of the incandescent Alfio and violent Aleko as the same man. Aleko is the titular outsider and, visited by the ghosts of Cavalleria, he is haunted by a crime of passion that he appears condemned to replicate. The bohemian amalgamation of light shades lowered from above cast a brassy light on the eccentric 90s commune and the vivacious Zemfira and her lover. In their sensuality and dynamism, the moving figures behind them paint an image of baroque art. Aleko is far removed from this intensity of light and dark, tension and richness; instead, he withdraws himself to the corner of the stage under the harsh white light shed on his marriage bed. Yet, as both Alfio and Aleko, Robert Hayward is no brutish demon but rather introspective and only all too human as his inverted torment manifests in uninhibited violence.

The two almost diametrically opposing sets walk a fine line between gaudy melodrama and anaemic melancholy. Yet Sofulak’s balance between the two places an emphasis on the grandeur of the music and captures the tragedy of love. As the audience is immersed in the florid theatricality of Zemfira’s death, we are plunged back into the macabre by the entrance of Anne-Marie Owens, still dressed as Mamma Lucia, who announces the death of the lovers and highlights again the interweaving of Cavalleria into this second opera. Opera North’s Orchestra intricately brings the richness of both Mascagni and Rachmaninoff to the Leeds Grand Theatre, while also accentuating the powerful drama of these operas.

This pairing of Cavalleria rusticana and Aleko is a performance I would wholeheartedly recommend, if not for these two fascinating and beautifully staged operas, then at least for the splendour of the Grand Theatre itself.

Editor's Note: This performance was seen at Leeds Grand Theatre on 15 February 2024. The production has now embarked on a northern tour. Tickets can be purchased here: https://www.operanorth.co.uk/whats-on/cavalleria-rusticana-aleko/