The week in classics: Cavalleria rusticana/Aleko; Bath BachFest review – passion and penance | Opera

Wwhether in the shadow of the cross or in the anarchic freedom of a traveling community, the result is the same. Love turns sour, reason is broken, emotions run amok. In each of the one-act works of Opera North’s latest double bill – The popular one by Pietro Mascagni Cavalleria rusticana (1890) and rarely staged by Sergei Rachmaninov Alex (1893) – this results in crimes of passion. This lyrical duet offers no solace, but its take, thanks to a superb cast, chorus and orchestra led by Antony Hermus, is vice and astonishing.

The Mascagni is a revival of 2017, the Rachmaninov a new production. Both are led by Karolina Sofulak, which draws parallels between works written by young composers and premiered three years apart. Mascagni, 27, would never again have a success that matched his enduring masterpiece, which he was still directing at age 70. For Rachmaninov, his student work, written quickly at the age of 19, praised by Tchaikovsky but now almost forgotten, was only the beginning of a brilliant composition career.

Without being too authoritarian, Sofulak suggests that the cuckold Alfio in Cavalleria rusticana (“rustic chivalry” basically means taking justice into your own hands) could be the older Aleko, awkwardly exiled to a hippie seaside community, rejected by his younger lover. Such a connection is not necessary for these independent works – I would have preferred none – but it adds coherence to the evening, especially as the singer who plays both murderous roles, British bass-baritone Robert Hayward, established as an actor and musician.

In Charles Edwards’ designs, Mascagni is removed from its usual Sicilian village setting and given a desolate Communist-era Polish makeover. A photo of Pope John Paul II and a Fiat Polski set the tone and the time. A church, a family store run by a desperate mother (Anne-Marie Owens) and an adulterous house coexist on an open stage, creating a claustrophobic feeling of foreboding. Belfast-born soprano Giselle Allen, injecting anguish into every note, reminds us that Santuzza’s suffering comes from that of betrayal. Her transition, marked by complicated religiosity, from wronged lover to vindictive shrew, is painful to watch.

The Uruguayan tenor Andrés Presno, a strong and powerful Turiddù who sang Cavaradossi in Tosca for Opera North, adopts the self-righteous swagger of the culprit. The Anglo-Cuban mezzo-soprano Helen Évora convinces in the role of his married girlfriend, Lola. The orchestra, pushed to maximum vehemence by Hermus, brought out the saturated colors of the score, particularly in the famous intermezzo.

The “multi-colored and unbuttoned” Aleko. Photography: Tristram Kenton

Alexbased on the narrative poem by Alexander Pushkin The gypsies (1827), is both overwhelming in its feelings and underdeveloped in its dramatic structure. The episodes include two dances, a cavatina and choruses, each magnetic in its own way but not obviously connected to one another. The forces of Opera North unified the stop-start form of the work with the consistency of their playing and singing, with Presno returning as the adulterous lover to Hayward’s deluded Aleko.

The object of their desire is Zemfira, callous in her rejection of her gray-haired old love, flirtatious in pursuit of her new young admirer: Welsh soprano Elin Pritchard is captivating both in her voice and her stage presence. As a father, bass Matthew Stiff drew a fine line in stoic sadness. The whole (again designed by Edwards), multicolored and unbuttoned contrasting with the severe and bare wood appearance of Cavalleria rusticana, neutralizes the awkward racial stereotypes about the Roma from the original. Sofulak cites Copenhagen’s Freetown Christiania as a touchstone.

Mahan Esfahani in rehearsal at the Guildhall, Bath. Photography: Emma Cross

Alex ends with a magnificent chorus, sung (excellent at the Opéra Nord) with the deep resonance of Russian Orthodox singing later used by Rachmaninov in his All night long Vigil. Here, the text is the opposite of religious: “We are savages, we have no laws”, sing these “gypsies”. In their humanity, they release the criminal Aleko into the worst freedom from his own loneliness and call for peace. It’s a powerfully effective double bill, and another panache in Opera North’s feathered cap.

The pure voices of Darknesswho opened the annual conference in Bath Bach Festival with that of Gesualdo Tenebrae Responses for Holy Saturday (1611), takes us back to the strict rites of sackcloth and ashes of Lent. Written in nine sections for solo voice, these sacred madrigals traverse the extremes of dissonance and chromaticism, lingering on the dark language of biblical texts: “They have cast me into the lowest pit, into darkness and into the shadow of death”, as the penultimate states of response say. Ten singers, led by Nigel Short, captured the volatile intensity of this music with singing of well-tuned perfection. They were equally meticulous in three motets by JS Bach, including the exuberant Singet dem Herrn (Sing a new song to the Lord), BWV 225.

The next day, harpsichord superstar Mahan Esfahani played a program by Handel (Suite No 2 in F major), Buxtehude (La Capricciosa) and JS Bach (English Suite No 6 in D minor). The expressiveness of Handel and the sheer virtuosity of the Buxtehude – a set of variations in which Esfahani seemed to transform a million black dots into murmurs – led, with well-judged logic, to Bach: palindromes, riddles and a “mirror » a fugue that will give you a headache (despite Esfahani’s lucid explanation), but ultimately, and without a doubt, better heard in music.

Gary Tushaw, center, as Benjamin Britten and company in Turning the Screw. Photography: Polly Hancock

There are currently two plays about Benjamin Britten and his circle: at the RSC’s Swan Theater in Stratford-upon-Avon, Ben and Imo by Mark Ravenhill (music by Conor Mitchell), and at the new King’s Head Theater in London, Turn the screw by Kevin Kelly, skillfully directed by Tim McArthur. So far I’ve only seen the latter. The cast, who can also sing, is led by Gary Tushaw (Britten), Liam Watson (David Hemmings), Simon Willmont (Peter Pears) and Jo Wickham (Imogen Holst). It’s a sensitive but unsensational take on well-documented issues in Britten’s life, including her attraction to boys. Regardless, the theater takes classical music seriously.

Star Ratings (out of five)
Cavalleria rusticana/Aleko
Bath BachFest

Cavalleria rusticana/Aleko is at the Grand Theater in Leeds until February 24, then tours Nottingham, Newcastle and Salford until March 22

Turn the screw is at the King’s Head Theatre, London N1, until March 10

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