Review: Cav and Aleko, Opera North, Leeds Grand Theatre, Thursday, February 15th, 2024

Love, betrayal, revenge, and ultimately murder cast a long shadow in Opera North’s utterly gripping double bill of one-act operas. Pietro Mascagni’s youthful masterpiece Cavalleria Rusticana - Rustic Chivalry - is paired, not with Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, its traditional heavenly twin, but with the 19-year-old Sergei Rachmaninov’s Aleko.

Both operas showcase the thrilling visceral power of the 36-strong-Chorus and 60-piece-Orchestra of Opera North at full tilt. Mascagni’s opulent score contains some of classical music’s best known tunes, such as the Easter Hymn and the heartbreaking orchestral Intermezzo. The young composer’s innate sense of theatre shines through in sweeping romantic themes and spine tingling tragic motifs hammered out by the full orchestra, conducted by Anthony Hermus.

The setting for this production designed and lit by Charles Edwards is grey 1970’s communist-era Poland. Orderly queues for bread rolls and sausages form at the counter of Mama Lucia’s sparsely stocked village shop. Lucia’s vain and spoilt son Turido had been dating Lola who eventually marries the taxi driver Alfio. His classic red Fiat 500 takes centre stage. Turido seduces the deeply religious Santuzza but he is still in love with Lola. She has now tired of marriage to Alfio.

Ilkley Gazette: AlekoAleko (Image: Tristram Kenton)

Rachmaninov’s music for Aleko, although less dramatic, shares a similarly lethal cocktail of adultery, betrayal and revenge. Baritone Robert Hayward sings both the cuckolded husband, Canio, in Cavalleria Rusticana and the possessive Aleko in Rachmaninov’s opera. Uruguayan tenor Andrés Presno sings Turido in Cav and the nameless Lover in Aleko. He ‘steals’ Aleko’s wife, Zemfira, beautifully sung by Elin Pritchard.

Taking the principal roles are great singers with the vocal firepower needed to knock out the audience in the stalls and up to the gods. Presno’s dark, burnished Italianate tenor is the finest in this house since the late, lamented Rafael Rojas. Giselle Allen as Santuzza soars effortlessly above full chorus and orchestra in the glorious Easter Hymn. The gravelly timbre of baritone Robert Hayward likewise fills the auditorium.

Since this is opera, there can only be one likely outcome: the baritone gets to shoot the tenor dead - twice in one evening!

At Leeds Grand on February 20th, 22nd, 24th and then touring.