Wednesday 5 August 2015

Rachmaninoff - Troika (La Monnaie, 2015 - Webcast)

Sergei Rachmaninoff - Troika

La Monnaie-De Munt, 2015

Mikhail Tatarnikov, Kirsten Dehlholm, Kostas Smoriginas, Sergey Semishkur, Alexander Vassiliev, Anna Nechaeva, Yaroslava Kozina, Sergei Leiferkus, Dmitry Golovnin, Ilya Silchukov, Alexander Kravets, Dimitris Tiliakos

La Monnaie Web Streaming

Based on works by Pushkin and Dante, it's not as if there aren't dramatic possibilities in the three one-act operas composed by Rachmaninoff. L'Opéra National de Lorraine at Nancy not only successfully staged a pairing of Aleko and Francesca da Rimini recently, but director Silviu Purcărete also managed to link the similar themes of the two works together into a single workable concept. Kirsten Dehlholm's approach to La Monnaie's presentation of all three Rachmaninoff's short opera works is, typically for the adventurous Belgian company, very different.

While there is an overall thematic connection between the works that is reflected in the set design, each of the three works very much has their own look and feel. None of the operas however are what you would call fully staged. Partly that may be dictated by La Monnaie's transfer to the Théâtre National while renovations are being carried out to La Monnaie's regular home, right through the next season. On the other hand, La Monnaie do tend to think 'outside the box', so to speak in their productions, and that's very much in evidence in their staging of the Rachmaninoff Troika. 

Russian opera suits big colourful spectacle and pageantry and certain productions of Rimsky-Korsakov's Sadko and The Golden Cockerel come to mind in Kirsten Dehlholm's bold setting of Aleko. A traditional staging of Rachnaminov's first opera, written as a graduation competition piece when the composer was nineteen (1892), and based on Pushkin's short story, 'The Gypsies', will usually draw unavoidable comparison with Carmen and Pagliacci. That certainly was the impression given in the recent Nancy production. Dehlholm's setting takes it far away from that.

Staged almost oratorio-like on a tiered platform of steps, Aleko doesn't really play to the storytelling drama aspect of the story. Nothing about the stylised rainbow-coloured costumes either suggests a naturalistic time period or gypsy culture. The story of Aleko's jealousy over his wife's affair with her lover that leads to their murder isn't wholly acted out either, with characters only moving into place alongside one another without acting out any drama. There are one or two props - some cut-out trees and tarot cards that indicate fate at play - but the force of the dramatic impact relies more on lighting and colouration exploding in psychedelic bursts of kaleidoscopic patterns that are nonetheless wholly informed by the music.

Rachmaninoff's music instrumentally takes up a considerable part of drama from the sparsely scripted libretti of Aleko and Francesca da Rimini, and it's no coincidence that the orchestra are more visible during these two operas. The orchestra might be on stage primarily due to the absence of a natural pit at the Théâtre National, but the instrumental elements of the operas are also very much a part of the dramatic fabric of the works. Just how important that is becomes more evident with the rich, melodic, dynamic Romantic sweep that Mikhail Tatarnikov draws from the orchestra here. Impressive singing too really gets the dramatic content across.

The Miserly Knight, again drawn from Pushkin, is more dialogue driven, taking the author's text almost directly from the page. It consequently pushes the focus back onto the characters at the front of the stage, the orchestra remaining behind the curtain that shows projections of a ruined building and a few filmed sequences. The situation is a relatively simple one that doesn't rely on a lot of dramatic action, but its still richly scored by Rachmaninoff, who sets the story, the characterisation and the relationships between the characters beautifully in the music.

The story of The Miserly Knight concerns Albert, a knight who has fallen on hard times, who can't even raise enough money to enter a tournament. It's particularly galling to Albert since his father, the Baron, is a very rich man who avariciously hoards all his wealth, horrified that his worthless son might one day inherit it all without having had to sweat for it. A Jewish money-lender suggests to Albert that he might want to hasten the day he inherits the money with a few drops of a potion that he can obtain for him, but nature takes its own course when the Earl himself suggests that the Baron might want to help Albert by placing him into his court.

Written in 1904, some nine years after his first one-act opera, Rachnaminoff's own distinctive voice is much more in evidence in The Miserly Knight. Despite the limited action it's lushly scored, giving strong character to the all the roles, not just the principals. The stage setting of the work tries to find a way to reflect this in the images of a ruined abandoned building, which means that occasional graffiti is thrown up unusual associations - Jimi Hendrix appearing on the screen at one point - but combined again here with very strong singing performances from Dmitry Golovnin and Sergei Leiferkus, it comes across impressively.

Although never composed to play as a trilogy, the order of composition sequence works well for the purposes of the La Monnaie Rachmaninoff Troika in progression and development. By the time we get to Francesca da Rimini (1905), the full force and brilliance of the orchestral composition, arrangements and dramatic intent is striking. The haunting choruses of the damned in the opening section where Dante and the Ghost of Virgil descend into the Second Circle of Hell and the musical colour and sweep that Rachmaninoff has composed for this theatrical extravaganza is given full expression too in Mikhail Tatarnikov's marvellous conducting of the rich orchestration.

Other than some projections of swirling mists and the descent of Dante and Virgil on cables, there's not really any effort made to give any traditional depiction of Hell in the staging. Perhaps recognising that the visual element needs no additional 'colour', the costumes and lighting go for a contrasting monochrome palette. As with Aleko, the effects are mostly limited to lighting and simple pattern effects that give the impression of the steps being fluid and wavy. It's visually spectacular, but not one that draws the dramatic element out as well as Purcărete's Nancy production. With a strong, consistent visual element and terrific performances across each of the three operas, the La Monnaie Troika creates a fascinating Rachmaninoff narrative of its own.

Links: La Monnaie-De Munt