Sergei Rachmaninoff - Aleko
L'Opéra National de Lorraine, Nancy - 2015
Rani Calderon, Silviu Purcărete, Alexander Vinogradov, Suren Maksutov, Miklos Sebestyen, Gelena Gaskarova, Svetlana Lifar
Culturebox - 15 February 2015
Rachmaninoff composed three one-act operas, but it's rare to see any of them performed. The character of the works don't really make them suitable to pair with any other work than another Rachmaninoff, but the specific requirements of Russian singing means that even that occasion is rare when there are few enough Russian works in the popular repertoire. Rachmaninoff's operas are not in the same league as those of Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, Borodin or Glinka that are already largely neglected, so it's a delight then to have the opportunity to see two of the three Rachmaninoff's performed fully-staged at the Opéra National de Lorraine in Nancy.
But for the singing demands that have nothing in common with verismo opera, Aleko would fit thematically very well in a double-bill alongside Puccini's Il Tabarro, Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci or Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana. Based on a dramatic poem by Pushkin, 'The Gypsies', Aleko is a compact and intense little drama, filled with local colour, dark undercurrents and sudden violence. Rachmaninoff's music captures all that colour wonderfully, reminiscent of Tchaikovsky (Eugene Onegin in particular in those moments of nostalgic reminiscence), but softer and more soulful, less coolly calculated, with some elements of folk music.
The folk music is immediately apparent, used to set the gypsy colour of the work. Played around a campfire by musicians, the music evokes the past for one old man, the father of Zemfira, bringing back memories of his short-lived marriage to Mariula. At a similar camp on a night like this, Mariula took off with another band of gypsies camped nearby, leaving him and their daughter without a word. Zemfira has now grown up and is married to Aleko, but the marriage is in trouble, Zemfira secretly seeing her lover behind Aleko's back. Listening to the music and the old man's story, the jealous Aleko talks darkly about vengeance. Gypsies and jealous lovers, you can take a stab at how this one is going to end...
While the campfire music stirs up echoes of the past for the old man and anger in Aleko, the remainder of the camp - here a group of circus performers - celebrate youth, freedom and dance. In Silviu Purcărete's colourful setting - created in 2013 for the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires alongside Francesca da Rimini - there's a dancing bear, clowns and acrobats, all working with the glorious beauty of Rachmaninoff's melodious and evocative scoring for a variety of moods. As far as dramatic underpinning goes for an opera, there's little that suggests situation or incident, certainly none of the underlying menace that you might find in the comparable situations in those aforementioned examples of one-act verismo opera.
Structurally however, Aleko is a compact and beautifully balanced little one-act work, giving each of its principals their moment in the spotlight. The arias are very much reflective monologues, not much that moves the action forward, but that's very much the nature of the piece. When you have strong Russian voices behind them, as in the case of Alexander Vinogradov's Aleko, and the deep lyrical bass of Miklos Sebestyen's Old Man, the real Russian folk character of the work and the writing comes though. Less secure in delivery, Gelena Gaskarova's Zemfira and Suren Maksutov as her lover do however also bring about the dramatic incident well.
Presented at the Opéra National de Lorraine alongside Rachmaninov's Francesca da Rimini, this is a real treat to hear and see these works performed so well, fully-staged and with authentic Russian character. Both are available to view on-line through the links below. There's another chance to see both works in different new productions this summer at La Monnaie in Brussels, in a Rachmaninov Trioka that includes his third one-act opera Skupoj Pytsar (The Miserly Knight).
Links: Culturebox, L'Opéra National de Lorraine