It's a quintessentially Italian, red-blooded tale of wine, passion, jealousy and violence. So how did our new production of Cavalleria rusticana find itself in late-1970s Poland? We caught up with director Karolina Sofulak to find out.
Pietro Mascagni’s 1890 opera is a classic of the nineteenth century verismo (realist) genre. In more recent times its beautiful intermezzo has cropped up over the hypnotic opening sequence of Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, and the iconic closing montage of The Godfather Part III.
Director Francis Ford Coppola had known the opera since childhood, and felt that his Mafia trilogy shared the opera's "particular vision of violence associated with the deeply ceremonial, death-haunted, and religious culture of Sicily", which is expressed in both works with a strong sense of ritual (the climax of Cavalleria occurs on Easter Sunday).
“Poland is a deeply religious country which was occupied for centuries by various foreign powers" says Karolina, "and in this respect it's very similar to post-Risorgimento Sicily, the original setting of Cavalleria rusticana. I've been drawing on my own experiences and my family's experiences of growing up in an intensely Catholic and economically deprived country – where everyday hardships make people turn towards the dreaminess of religion, make them filter and channel their desires and frustrations through obsessive faith.
“I chose the late-1970s as my setting, because I felt that the Communist reality of that time shared the lack of perspectives and general sense of desperation felt in Cavalleria. People were particularly mistrustful of the state then, and they tended to try and solve their differences without recourse to the police, especially in rural areas. Catholicism was of utmost importance, as it was considered dissident by the regime”.
“Preparing Cavalleria involved a lot of research – I ended up with a huge folder of archival photos from the Communist times of the People’s Republic of Poland. Every time I would show them to someone and explain the things they contained, it struck me how huge the cultural gap is between the West and the countries which have experienced communism first hand.
"Some of the stories I told about everyday hardships under the regime, about propaganda and provocations, about the empty shop shelves, about the total and utter surrealism of some situations, were really hard to believe for my colleagues.
“Slowly but surely, the characters started merging with my own family members – Mamma Lucia is inspired by my grandmother Lucyna, who ran a shop all her life and who was a very powerful and formidable force in my father’s life, the way Mamma Lucia is in Turiddù’s.”
Karolina's setting is also partly inspired by classic Polish cinema. The cult comedies of Stanisław Bareja are an unexpected touchstone: “The dry, deadpan humour and the brilliant way he captured the society of the time has stayed with me ever since I watched his films in my early childhood”, she says.
A bit more in keeping with the tone and religious symbolism of Cavalleria, Karolina also cites the films of the great Krzysztof Kieślowski as an influence, "especially the Dekalog". Featuring a haunting original soundtrack by Zbigniew Preisner, this series of ten one-hour films inspired by the Ten Commandments was shown on Polish television in 1989. The cycle also shares some intriguing similarities with our Little Greats season as a whole...
Cavalleria rusticana opens at Leeds Grand Theatre on Wednesday 27 September, before touring to Hull New Theatre, Theatre Royal Nottingham, Theatre Royal Newcastle and The Lowry, Salford Quays. During the opening run of our Little Greats season in Leeds, there will be a chance to see the opera in some unusual and inspired pairings: with Gilbert & Sullivan’s witty farce Trial by Jury, Janáček’s incandescent rarity Osud, and Bernstein’s jazzy 1950s satire on the American Dream, Trouble in Tahiti. On tour, Cavalleria rusticana will be performed with its more customary partner in a double bill, Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci – another short, brutal verismo classic.
Cavalleria rusticana: Phillip Rhodes as Alfio and Katie Bray as Lola with the Chorus of Opera North. Credit: Robert Workman.
Cavalleria rusticana: Giselle Allen as Santuzza
Cavalleria rusticana: Rosalind Plowright as Lucia with the Chorus of Opera North
Marian Schmidt, Poland, 1970s. Detail of photograph featured in the Cavalleria rusticana programme
Stanisław Bareja (right) on the set of his 1980 film Miś, with actor Stanisław Tym
Cavalleria rusticana: Rosalind Plowright as Lucia
Cavalleria rusticana: Giselle Allen as Santuzza with members of the Chorus of Opera North
Having studied Opera and Musical Theatre Direction in Kraków and Comparative Literature at the University of Warsaw, Karolina Sofulak began her career as an assistant director at the Polish National Opera in Warsaw. She has since worked with major opera companies throughout mainland Europe and the UK, and as assistant director on Opera North productions including Britten’s Peter Grimes and Bellini’s Norma. In the UK she has directed Monteverdi’s Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda for the London Festival of Baroque Music and Rameau’s Pigmalion for the Stroud Green Festival in London, soon to appear at the Brighton Early Music Festival.