Scottish Opera’s Outstanding Performances of Rare Rachmaninov Operas

08/05/2018

Rachmaninov, Aleko and Francesca da Rimini: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Scottish Opera / Stuart Stratford (conductor), Theatre Royal Glasgow, 6.5.2018. (GT)

Aleko

Aleko – Evez Abdulla
Young Gypsy – Oleg Dolgov
Zemfira – Ekaterina Goncharova
Old Gypsy – Alexei Tanovitski
Gypsy Woman – Anne-Marie Owens

Francesca da Rimini

Ghost of Virgil – Alexei Tanovitski
Dante Alighieri – Oleg Dolgov
Lanciotto Malatesta – Evez Abdulla
Francesca Malatesta – Ekaterina Goncharova
Paolo Malatesta – Oleg Dolgov

Scottish Opera’s presentation of a string of Russian operas, some well-known, others less familiar ended with these two early one-act operas by a composer best known for his piano concertos and his symphonies. The curator of this survey of Russian operas is the company’s music director Stuart Stratford. Studying with Ilya Musin at the St Petersburg Conservatoire gave Stratford a keen interest in Russian music and his attempt to win new audiences in Scotland is worthy of much credit when the repertoire is becoming constrained through budget cuts. Only the current touring Eugene Onegin was given a stage production and given the often-underwhelming state of many contemporary productions perhaps it was better that we heard these operas in concert performance allowing full attention on the music itself. Hailed at one time as Russia’s finest conductor and pianist, Rachmaninov never completed another work for the stage after composing his three completed operas, and based on these two operas, it is not regrettable he never pursued writing in this genre. The third opera The Covetous Knight was championed by Feodor Chaliapin and is the most often performed of the three operas by Rachmaninov.

Rachmaninov’s first opera Aleko (which was his graduation work and for which he was awarded the Great Gold Medal) is based on Pushkin’s poem, The Gypsies, and is richly embroidered with folk music, especially from the Caucasus, and from gypsy folk music. It dates from 1892 and was premiered at the Bolshoi Theatre in 1893, the St Petersburg premiere (conducted by the composer) starred Chaliapin in the leading role, and Aleko’s cavatina became a favourite piece in the great singer’s repertoire. The libretto by Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko has been criticised for its lack of drama, albeit it was praised for its melody and promising themes by Tchaikovsky. The only previous performance of Aleko in Scotland was by the Mariinsky Opera at the 2008 Edinburgh International Festival. The performance of Francesca da Rimini was the Scottish premiere.

In this concert performance, the male and ladies’ choirs sang from the left and right sides of the Grand Circle often to striking effect. Aleko opened with a colourful introduction, the rather inconsequential idea on the flute, was picked up by strings and brass introducing dark themes more typical of Tchaikovsky, full of angst and gloom. Yet there were momentous aspects with the magical entry of the ladies’ choir in their exotic harmonies above the orchestra. The arrival of the Old Gypsy (Alexei Tanovitski) was enormously effective too with his typically deep Slavic bass in his narrative of his sorrows and lost love ‘The magic power of song’. The Aleko of Evez Abdulla (as he showed when last here in The Fiery Angel) was perhaps the outstanding singer of the afternoon; he has a terrific dramatic presence and wonderful baritone, dark and cutting when needed. The orchestral interlude continued with richly exotic harmonies with hints of Borodin and developed into a richly colourful gypsy dance.  The Zemfira of Ekaterina Goncharova crying to her lover: ‘Go! My husband is jealous and cruel’, to the young Gypsy of Oleg Dolgov who pleads: ‘Just one more kiss! One long kiss of farewell!’ in a marvellously well performed duet, both fine singing and well characterised, however it was Aleko who stole the thunder with his glorious cavatina full of suspicion and jealousy: ‘The whole camp sleeps’ followed by the characterful orchestral intermezzo. The young Gypsy of Dolgov was wonderful in his romance, ‘Look how beneath the distant vault of heaven, the moon sails freely along’ from another duet between Zemfira and her beau, before the angry Aleko disposes of the luckless pair of lovers: ‘Stay! Where are you off to, my handsome fellow?’ If the singing was distinguished, one would not have guessed that murder was being committed by the facial expressions of Zemfira and the young Gypsy. Zemfira’s father reappeared as if to settle accounts and a cameo appeared briefly with the Gypsy of Anne-Marie Owens to close this opera ‘Men! Go and dig fresh graves’. Aleko contains some gorgeous tunes, and the singing was excellent, yet it is the lack of dramatic inspiration that makes this opera so rarely heard.

Rachmaninov uses Dante’s Inferno for his second opera Francesca da Rimini in a stirring struggle between love and death, a theme like that of Aleko. It is remarkable that the composer avoids the sub-texts of other Russian composers and fully presents the terrible fate of the characters rather than avoiding them, perhaps reflecting on the composer’s own tricky situation following the failure of his First Symphony. Modest Tchaikovsky wrote the libretto and the composition dates from 1900 (when he wrote the love duet) returning to it in 1904. The premiere was given in 1906 at the Bolshoi Theatre under the composer’s baton, in a double bill which also had the premiere of The Covetous Knight written at the same time. Taken from the fifth canto, ‘the second circle of hell’ of the Inferno from The Divine Comedy by Dante, the opera has a prologue, two tableaux with an epilogue.

Francesca da Rimini is a quite different work from his previous opera with an extended prologue containing what must be the most exploratory and modern writing Rachmaninov ever set down. Of course, it dates from the fin de siècle age in which new forms were entering the arts. Scriabin – Rachmaninov’s fellow student and friend – was still to write his most daring piano works but the very texts that Rachmaninov chose reveals his daring new language. The chromatic harmonies evoked on the woodwind and violas sound most akin to human wailing, in this depiction of the descent into hell, the orchestra were joined by the choir in a wordless yet pitiful lament. Alexei Tanovitski’s Virgil’s Ghost appeared singing against the voices from hell: ‘Now we are descending into the dark abyss’ accompanied by the Dante of Oleg Dolgov: ‘How can I follow, when you yourself are fearful?’ The first tableau followed with a terrifying whirlwind of a storm, at Malatesta’s palace in Rimini, Lanciotto Malatesta: ‘My reply is simple’. Evez Abdulla here is the best singer by far, giving a powerful narrative of his love and his perceived betrayal by his wife Francesca who is Ekaterina Goncharova and the duet between them is captivating in its intensity: ‘Nothing can suppress my jealous thoughts’. Francesca’s reply: ‘My lord called me?’ reveals her lack of empathy to him when her husband goes off for war. The following second tableau in a room in the palace, is centred around the beautiful love duet between Paolo: ‘The fair Guinevere…’ sung by Dolgov, and Francesca lacked colour and drama, but well performed, with particularly beautiful singing from the high soprano of Goncharova: ‘Oh, do not weep, my Paolo, you must not…’ and a great climax arrives with the sudden return of Lanciotto: ‘No! Eternal damnation!’ singing from up in the Grand Circle before he despatches the lovers to their deaths backed by the terrifying voices from hell of the two choruses: ‘No, there is no greater sorrow in the world’. However, we would not have known the two lovers were murdered at all from their acting. Dante and the Ghost reappear in the epilogue contemplating, ‘there is no greater sadness in the world than to remember a time of joy in a time of grief’.

The orchestra and chorus rose to a thrillingly dramatic and thrilling climax. It is easy to see why these operas are so rarely performed for they contain little dramatic structure, despite a few highlights, they are more a relic of the period in which they were written – a time of change in artistic and musical virtues. Rachmaninov attempted to write another two operas, but neither were completed. Instead of a reluctant opera composer we gained a great composer of romantic piano concertos and symphonies. Throughout these two performances the standard of singing and orchestral playing was of the highest order, and although Scottish Opera will not be programming any more Russian works next season, the overall success of these Russian operas can easily be repeated in seasons to come with one of Rimsky-Korsakov’s fifteen operas or some of the ten operas by Tchaikovsky, there are of course others by Glinka, Mussorgsky and Rubinstein worthy of performance. Is that too much to ask?

Gregor Tassie

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