Continuing its strategy of putting highly contrasting short operas next to each other in its Little Greats festival, Opera North has programmed Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana for the same evening as Gilbert and Sullivan’s Trial by Jury. Both old standards have been generally rejuvenated by injections of creative talent, mainly successfully, and both provide a showcase for the Chorus.

Giselle Allen as Santuzza © Robert Workman
Giselle Allen as Santuzza
© Robert Workman

Cavalleria rusticana has been set in Poland around the 1970s, when Soviet-installed communism was still in command. The austerity of that period is played up, in line with an interpretation of verismo and with the facts of history, because Sicily and Poland are to some extent still staunchly conservative Catholic places, and have been overrun frequently by foreign powers. It seems a good idea, but I was not completely convinced: the extreme starkness of the set, with a sour-faced Lucia (Rosalind Plowright) festering behind the counter of “Sklep Lucyna”, her uninvitingly functional, empty-shelved shop, takes away a significant part of the colourful, archaic religious imagery. Attempts to replace this are minimal, with plenty of chest-crossing, and sometimes very effective. I loved the symbolism in a key tableau where the man about to be murdered – the vain, reckless Turridu (the name means ‘saviour’) – opens his shirt, climbs on a metal platform and poses, arms outstretched, against a huge wooden cross as Christ, with the girl he has dishonoured, Santuzza, grieving and flipping her long hair about at its foot. Director Karolina Sofulak knows her devotional paintings!

Tenor Jonathan Stoughton as Turridu took a while to get up to speed at the beginning, with a desultory “La siciliana”, while the principals strode the stage slowly in a stylised expository section. He came into his own, however, in his duet with Santuzza, “Tu qui, Santuzza”, and was quite gripping in the drinking song “Viva il vino spumeggiante”, swinging a bottle of vodka in his hand. Soprano Giselle Allen displayed her accomplished acting skills, but perhaps pawed at the wooden cross a little too frequently in the attempt to convince us of her great religiosity. Her voice is endowed with more than enough richness and warmth. Mezzo Katie Bray’s lovely dark tones fitted the part of Lola, though her love-making scene with Turridu seemed too routine, lacking passion.

Phillip Rhodes (Alfio) and Katie Bray (Lola) with the Opera North Chorus and trusty Polski Fiat © Robert Workman
Phillip Rhodes (Alfio) and Katie Bray (Lola) with the Opera North Chorus and trusty Polski Fiat
© Robert Workman

The claustrophobia of life in a Sicilian village was represented not only by the characters being enclosed in depressing surroundings but also by the presence of Alfio’s 500cc Polski Fiat car. This is a major component of the production. Baritone Philip Rhodes, an outstanding Alfio, conveyed an appropriate harshness as the equivalent of a small-time Mafioso, and had plenty of stage business around the vehicle. His scene during the Intermezzo was particularly moving. He smashed a chair, then wept after hearing about his wife Lola’s infidelity, ending up sitting in the driver’s seat.

The ravishing music was subtly and precisely interpreted by conductor Tobias Ringborg.  The car is where the vengeful climax happens, with Alfio shooting Turridu dead, the two of them crammed into a breathless space. It had great impact, and the banality of the crime remained. The Chorus was its usual, terrific self in its disgruntled queueing in Lucia’s shop and in its stunning rendition of “Regina Coeli Laetare”, the Easter Hymn, the best I have heard in ages.

Amy Freston (The Plaintiff) and Jeremy Peaker (The Learned Judge) in <i>Trial by Jury</i> © Robert Workman
Amy Freston (The Plaintiff) and Jeremy Peaker (The Learned Judge) in Trial by Jury
© Robert Workman
A colourful, frothy Trial by Jury followed after a long interval. For the remaining members of the audience – the majority – it was like the light relief provided in Shakespeare’s time, when morris dancing followed tragedies. Preceded by a witty introductory piece about tabloid newspaper coverage dominated by a period poster for a film starring Angelina (The Plaintiff), it was set in a wonderfully silly version of the nineteen twenties. The opera demonstrated the versatility and talent of the Chorus, which took all the parts. The dancing came mainly from simpering bridesmaids in pink, Jeremy Peaker as The Learned Judge and Nicholas Watts as The Defendant gave splendid performances and seemed to have stepped out of the pages of a P. G. Wodehouse novel. The amusingly authoritarian Usher, played by Richard Mosley-Evans, was like a singing Rottweiler. Amy Freston was a delightfully frivolous Angelina and Amy J. Payne was a wonderfully “period” radio interviewer behind a microphone as big as a tennis racquet, wearing a hat which would look special on a Derby Day. The brisk production, directed by John Savournin with Oliver Rundell as conductor, made all the dated attitudes and assumptions in it seem of little consequence. I laughed heartily along with most other people.