Five Emotions: One Double Bill
Passion threads through both halves of the double bill. In Mascagni’s work, a passionate love triangle sets the scene for the unfolding tragedy. We meet Turiddù, as he returns to his home village after military service to discover that his fiancée has married someone else. He seduces another local girl, Santuzza, as an act of revenge – only to start meeting Lola again in secret. When Santuzza spills the beans about the affair, it’s only a matter of time before everything falls apart and tragedy ensues.
As if that wasn’t enough passion for one night, Rachmaninov’s Aleko puts the spotlight on the same emotion. The composer based his work on a Pushkin poem which explores what happens when two people see love and fidelity in a very different light. Passion turns from a declaration of desire to the touch paper for revenge.
Opera loves obsession! In both Cavalleria rusticana and Aleko, the main protagonist suffers as a result of becoming fixated with a girl whom he later loses to another. It is this inability to break free from obsession, and the need to possess, that ultimately destroys his life and those of the people around him.
Spotting the many parallels between the two pieces, director Karolina Sofulak has threaded the operas in the double bill together. The wronged husband in Cavalleria rusticana becomes the wronged lover, many years later, in Aleko, after erroneously believing he can break free of his past and start afresh. By following his journey in this way, Karolina has ensured Alfio/Aleko engages the audience’s understanding even if his actions leave us reeling.
Robert Hayward as Aleko and Elin Pritchard as Zemfira in rehearsal for Aleko © Tom Arber
The flipside of obsession is, of course, jealousy. What makes this pairing of operas particularly interesting is that Karolina has chosen two very different settings to show society’s attitude to honour, fidelity and jealousy.
Her production of Cavalleria rusticana is set in 1970s Poland, a place of deprivation and hardship, but also of strict beliefs defined by the church. Here, violently avenging infidelity is felt to be justifiable. Things are very different in Aleko. We enter a colourful, vibrant bohemian community inspired by Christiana in Denmark, where leaving one partner for another is tolerated, but violence is not. Jealousy becomes an emotion to be mastered rather than acted upon.
The Chorus of Opera North in rehearsal for Aleko © Tom Arber
Over the course of the evening, bloody revenge goes from being perfectly acceptable to unconscionable. As Karolina explains: “… [the pieces] really show the evolution of the concept of honour. In the conservative society we see in Cavalleria, it’s accepted that the thing to do is to avenge a stain on your honour. Whereas in the more liberal society of Aleko, it’s no longer honourable to shed more blood, the thing to do is to turn away.”
As the main character travels between the communities, it is his inability to recognise this distinction that leads to his undoing. Karolina continues: “We see what happens when Alfio is taken out of his restrictive culture and put through the very same thing in a place where he cannot blame society for what happens”.
Phillip Rhodes as Alfio and Katie Bray as Lola with the Chorus of Opera North in Cavalleria rusticana (2017) © Robert Workman
Expressing tragedy is opera’s forte – particularly as it has the power of the singers’ voices and the orchestra in the pit at its disposal. While the action will have you on the edge of your seat, it is the music which really captures the tragedy of the unfolding action and expresses it in a way that fully engages every emotion.
Look out in Cavalleria rusticana for the beautiful Intermezzo played by the orchestra as the Easter service takes place and which perfectly expresses great despair and tension as the story nears its climax. After the interval, ‘Aleko’s Cavatina’ is “the heart and soul of the piece” according to Karolina Sofulak. While the community sleeps, Aleko remembers how he first fell for Zemfira, and wonders where it all went wrong. Within just one single aria, the 19-year-old Rachmaninov captures stillness, tenderness, yearning and ultimately grief.
Robert Hayward as Aleko in rehearsal © Tom Arber