Communist Poland comes to the UK in radical new opera adaptation

A new production of Cavalleria rusticana, commissioned by Opera North and developed by Polish director Karolina Sofulak, has premiered in the UK.

The director set Cavalleria, originally written by Pietro Mascagni in 1890, in her home country during the late 1970s. The updated version presents the protagonists as dissident Catholics mistrustful of Poland’s communist regime.

Sofulak, a director who has worked with opera companies across Europe including the Baltic State Opera and Opéra National de Bordeaux, said: “Preparing Cavalleria involved a lot of research. Every time I would show [the research] to someone…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.”

The classic opera, famously featured in such films as Raging Bull and The Godfather III, tells the story of Turiddù, a soldier who returns to his hometown to find that his fiancée Lola has married another man. The play deals with passion, revenge and violence — themes Sofulak found particularly relevant to Poland in the late 1970s, when it was a satellite state of the USSR, and under strict Communist rule.

She added: “Poland is a deeply religious country which was occupied for centuries by various foreign powers, and in this respect it’s very similar to post-Risorgimento Sicily, the original setting of Cavalleria rusticana.”

The production, which is visually inspired by the aesthetics and culture of the 70s, featuring the iconic Polish-made Fiat 126 ‘Maluch’. Sofulak was also inspired by Krzysztof Kieślowski and comedies of Stanisław Bareja, as well as by her own family history. Turiddù’s mother Mamma Lucia is loosely based on her grandmother, Lucyna.

Sofulak said: “I chose the late-1970s as my setting, because I find 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.”

“It is going to be a rather personal show for me. I’ve been drawing on my own experiences… of growing up in an intensely Catholic and economically deprived country.”

Cavalleria rusticana premiered on Saturday at the Leeds Grand Theatre as part of its Little Greats season, and will continue until 21 October, before touring Hull, Nottingham, Newcastle and Manchester.

The production runs until 21 November.

By Elizabeth Logan