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A tale of two opera in one production - one drab and the other full of fun

Cavalleria Rusticana and Gilbert & Sullivan’s Trial by Jury

Opera Norths production of Gilbert & Sullivans Trial by Jury, Autumn 2017 Amy Freston as The Plaintiff and Jeremy Peaker as The Learned Judge Photo credit: Robert Workman

The second double-bill of Opera North’s The Little Greats season again follows love tragedy with delightful nonsense, writes Ron Simpson.

Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, though tremendously powerful, provoked a mixed response on press night, while Gilbert and Sullivan’s Trial by Jury spread unalloyed joy throughout the theatre.

Karolina Sofulak’s updating of Cavalleria Rusticana from 19th century Sicily to 1970s Poland is not without logic – Catholicism and poverty being the two main links – but Charles Edwards’ drab set divided between house, square, church and shop is as uninspiring as Sofulak’s expressionist direction is exasperating. There is no clear definition of which characters are where and the image of Turiddu as Christ on the cross is pointless and tasteless.

Opera Norths production of Gilbert & Sullivans Trial by Jury

In the end this matters less than one might think. The production has many good qualities in among the perverseness: Alfio’s little red taxi goes beyond cute to have real dramatic value. Above all, the production gives full value to Mascagni’s fertility of melodic invention and brash orchestration. Tobias Ringborg conducts a magnificently passionate performance with the orchestra in superb form, dynamic contributions from the chorus and a committed set of principals.

Giselle Allen (Santuzza), her immaculately produced soprano shaded and coloured by the character’s agony and desire for revenge, stands out, but Jonathan Stoughton (a virile Italianate Turiddu), Phillip Rhodes (bluff hail-fellow-well-met murderer Alfio), Rosalind Plowright (a brooding presence as Mama Lucia) and Katie Bray (more openly seductive than most Lolas) are all excellent.

Opera Norths production of Mascagnis Cavalleria rusticana, Autumn 2017 Giselle Allen as Santuzza Conductor Tobias Ringborg, Director Karolina Sofulak, Set and Lighting Designer Charles Edwards, Costume Designer Gabrielle Dalton, Movement Director Tim Claydon Photo credit: Robert Workman

Trial by Jury is also updated, this time totally successfully. Gilbert and Sullivan die-hards may huff at the idea of setting the opera in the 1920s with a prologue introducing Angelina, the Plaintiff, as a Hollywood star (Amy J Payne terrific value as the gossip-columnist presenter), but are unlikely to survive the barrage of comic invention without capitulating.

Director John Savournin works with Edwards’ mobile and witty set and Gabrielle Dalton’s gorgeously over-the-top costumes to build gag on gag, detail on detail – fun, without let-up! Tension released, the orchestra plays gleefully for Oliver Rundell.

Opera Norths production of Mascagnis Cavalleria rusticana, Autumn 2017 Phillip Rhodes as Alfio and Katie Bray as Lola with the Chorus of Opera North Conductor Tobias Ringborg, Director Karolina Sofulak, Set and Lighting Designer Charles Edwards, Costume Designer Gabrielle Dalton, Movement Director Tim Claydon Photo credit: Robert Workman

The chorus yet again shows its quality and versatility, brilliant as jurors, bridesmaids, press and police while also taking the principal roles. Jeremy Peaker brings the shrewd timing and immaculate diction of an old G&S hand to the Learned Judge; Amy Freston’s Angelina is irresistible, if a little under-powered vocally; Nicholas Watts (Defendant), Claire Pascoe (Counsel) and Richard Mosley-Evans (Usher) keep up the fun and the musical values.

The production will be at Leeds Grand Theatre on Saturday, October 7 and Friday, October 13.

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