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The week in classical: Cavalleria rusticana/Aleko; Bath BachFest review – passion and penitence

<span>‘Emotions run amok’: Giselle Allen and Andrés Presno in Cavalleria rusticana.</span><span>Photograph: Tristram Kenton</span>
‘Emotions run amok’: Giselle Allen and Andrés Presno in Cavalleria rusticana.Photograph: Tristram Kenton

Whether in the shadow of the cross or in the lawless freedom of an itinerant community, the upshot is the same. Love turns sour, reason is shattered, emotions run amok. In each of the one-act works in Opera North’s latest double bill – Pietro Mascagni’s popular Cavalleria rusticana (1890) and Sergei Rachmaninov’s rarely staged Aleko (1893) – crimes of passion result. This operatic pairing does not offer comfort, but its grip, thanks to a superb cast, chorus and orchestra conducted by Antony Hermus, is vice-like and dumbfounding.

The Mascagni is a revival from 2017, the Rachmaninov a new staging. Both are directed by Karolina Sofulak, who draws parallels between the works, written by young composers and premiered three years apart. Mascagni, 27, would never again have a success to match his enduring masterpiece, which he was still conducting in his 70s. For Rachmaninov, his student work, written at speed at the age of 19, praised by Tchaikovsky but now nearly forgotten, was only the start of a glittering compositional career.

Giselle Allen instills every note with anguish. Her transition from wronged lover to vindictive shrew is painful to behold

Without being too heavy-handed, Sofulak intimates that the cuckolded Alfio in Cavalleria rusticana (“rustic chivalry” essentially means taking justice into your own hands) could be the older Aleko, exiled awkwardly in a hippy-ish beach community, spurned by his younger lover. No such link is needed for these independent works – I would have preferred none – but it adds coherence to the evening, especially since the singer playing both murderous roles, the British bass-baritone Robert Hayward, compels as actor as well as musician.

In Charles Edwards’s designs, the Mascagni is removed from its usual Sicilian village setting and given a desolate Polish, communist-era makeover. A picture of Pope John Paul II, and a Polski Fiat, set tone and time. Church, a family shop run by a desperate mother (Anne-Marie Owens) and a house of adultery all coexist on an open stage, creating a claustrophobic sense of foreboding. The Belfast-born soprano Giselle Allen, instilling every note with anguish, reminds us that Santuzza’s suffering comes from the hurt of betrayal. Her transition, laced with complicated religiosity, from wronged lover to vindictive shrew is painful to behold.

The Uruguayan tenor Andrés Presno, a beefy-toned and potent Turiddù who has sung Cavaradossi in Tosca for Opera North, adopts the self-righteous swagger of the guilty. The British-Cuban mezzo-soprano Helen Évora convinces as his susceptible married girlfriend, Lola. The orchestra, propelled to maximum vehemence by Hermus, brought out the score’s saturated colours, not least in the celebrated intermezzo.

Aleko, based on Alexander Pushkin’s narrative poem The Gypsies (1827), is at once overwhelming in feeling and undeveloped in dramatic structure. Episodes include two dances, cavatina and choruses, each magnetic in their way but not obviously connected to one another. Opera North’s forces unified the work’s stop-start shape with the coherence of their playing and singing, Presno returning as the adulterous lover to Hayward’s deceived Aleko.

The object of their desire is Zemfira, callous in her dismissal of her grey-haired old love, coquettish in pursuit of her new young admirer: the Welsh soprano Elin Pritchard is entrancing both in voice and stage presence. As her father, the bass Matthew Stiff mustered a fine line in stoical gloom. The set (again designed by Edwards), multicoloured and unbuttoned in contrast to the severe, bare-wood look of Cavalleria rusticana, neutralises the awkward racial Roma stereotyping of the original. Sofulak cites Copenhagen’s Freetown Christiania commune as a touchstone.

Aleko concludes with a magnificent chorus, sung (excellently at Opera North) with the deep resonance of Russian Orthodox chant later employed by Rachmaninov in his All-Night Vigil. Here, the text is the polar opposite of religious: “We are wild, we have no laws,” sing these “gypsies”. In their humanity they release the criminal Aleko to the arguably worse freedom of his own loneliness, and call for peace. This is a powerfully effective double bill, and another plume in Opera North’s well-feathered cap.

The pure voices of Tenebrae, who opened Bath’s annual BachFest with Gesualdo’s Tenebrae Responsories for Holy Saturday (1611), took us back to the strict, sackcloth-and-ashes rites of Lent. Written in nine sections for unaccompanied voices, these sacred madrigals traverse the extremes of dissonance and chromaticism, dwelling on the sombre language of the biblical texts: “They cast me into the lowest pit, into darkness and into the shadow of death,” as the penultimate response states. Ten singers, directed by Nigel Short, caught the volatile intensity of this music with singing of well-tuned perfection. They were equally meticulous in three JS Bach motets, including the exuberant Singet dem Herrn (Sing to the Lord a New Song), BWV 225.

The next day, harpsichord superstar Mahan Esfahani played a programme of Handel (Suite No 2 in F major), Buxtehude (La Capricciosa) and JS Bach (English Suite No 6 in D minor). The expressivity of the Handel and the sheer virtuosity of the Buxtehude – a set of variations in which Esfahani seemingly turned a million black dots into a murmuration – led, with well-judged logic, to the Bach: palindromes, enigmas and a “mirror” fugue to make your head hurt (despite Esfahani’s lucid advance explanation), but finally, and unquestionably, best heard as music.

There are currently two plays running about Benjamin Britten and his circle: at the RSC’s Swan theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, Ben and Imo by Mark Ravenhill (music by Conor Mitchell), and at the new King’s Head theatre, London, Turning the Screw by Kevin Kelly, nimbly directed by Tim McArthur. So far I have seen only the latter. The cast, which can also sing, is led by Gary Tushaw (Britten), Liam Watson (David Hemmings), Simon Willmont (Peter Pears) and Jo Wickham (Imogen Holst). This is a sensitive but unsensational handling of well-documented issues in Britten’s life, not least his attraction to boys. Theatre, anyway, takes classical music seriously.

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

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

Turning the Screw is at the King’s Head theatre, London N1, until 10 March