While perhaps not a prodigy of the Mozart and Mendelssohn caliber, the teenaged Sergei Rachmaninoff nevertheless created an opera, Aleko, which attests to his considerable precocity. Commonwealth Lyric Theater (CLT) is presenting a rare staging of the opera at the Center Makor in Brighton: the first two performances were Sunday, June 9, in the afternoon and evening, with two more to come: Tuesday, June 11 at 8:00pm, and Thursday, June 13 at 8:00pm. The production is notable for virtually uniformly excellent singing and acting through two casts, the expressive, flexible, but always authoritative conducting of Lidiya Yankovskaya, the strong as well as tender singing of the chorus, the emotionally evocative choreography confidently executed by a talented corps de ballet, and the beautiful costumes that are the work of Scenic and Costume Designers Olga Maslova and Maria Kapustina. Praiseworthy, too, is the superb work of Paul Soper in the title role substituting in the afternoon for an indisposed Mikhail Svetlov. (There is guarded optimism that Svetlov will be able to sing his other performance.) CLT’s Artistic Director Alexander Prokhorov and Executive Director Olga Lisovskaya, both professional singers who also performed, have done a service to their countryman Rachmaninoff whose 140th birthday is observed this year.
Adapted from Alexander Pushkin poem The Gypsies, the opera’s plot is like that of Carmen. Aleko, a non-gypsy man, having had a torrid affair with Zemfira, a gypsy woman, becomes quasi-demented with jealousy when Zemfira transfers her affections to a younger, gypsy man, and he murders them both. As the gypsies “have no law,” they do not seek to prosecute him but will not live with a murderer and consequently banish him. Having forsaken “civilized” society to live with Zemfira and the gypsies, he ends up doubly exiled.
Because of the large contingent of choristers and dancers, and the lack of a pit, it was necessary to make an arrangement for a smaller orchestra— convincingly accomplished by composer Moshe Shulman. Furthermore, Shulman and Prokhorov, guided by historic recordings of the opera, felt unconstrained to treat the original score as gospel, and have therefore interpolated a handful of other pieces by Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky as well as some traditional gypsy songs. As Rachmaninoff’s one-act work would have required a mere 50 minutes or so to perform, these additions, done skillfully as they largely were here, made for a more satisfying concert length and blended well with the original score. One wonders what the older composer, more skilled at his craft, might have done by revisiting this early accomplishment with an expanded version of the libretto to allow greater fleshing out of characters and the opportunity to build on his handful of leitmotivs.
CLT’s two casts were carefully chosen to contrast with each other but to have internal consistency. The first (Sunday afternoon and Thursday evening) has lighter voices in both color and heft as compared to the second (Sunday and Tuesday evenings). Yankovskaya and the orchestra matched each cast well; on the rare occasions there was an imbalance, it was the chorus covering the orchestra momentarily, which still allowed the text primacy. Though the majority of the audience at both Sunday performances seemed to be Russian-speaking, there were projected surtitles in English and Russian; these had synchronization problems at the beginning of the afternoon’s performance that were fortunately resolved by the evening’s.
The work’s most extended aria is Aleko’s Cavatina in which he rapturously remembers the time when he and Zemfira were in love and subsequently his intense pain when she becomes cold, feeling caged by his possessiveness, and finds love with another man. Rachmaninoff supplies some of his most seductive and tragic music. Baritones Paul Soper and Wesley Ray Thomas both delivered tours de force of vocalism and drama in portraying a man unsuccessful in adapting to a culture so different from his own, now at the end of his tether.
Zemfira’s single extended solo is bizarrely cast in the libretto as a lullaby to her child (there is no other reference to this child before or after). This production sensibly eliminates any reference to a child or lullaby and has Zemfira playing solitaire as she sings this decidedly non-soporific music and text: “Old man, fearful man, stab me, burn me: I am strong, I fear neither knife nor fire. I hate you, I despise you; I love another, and am dying of love.” Though she doesn’t make eye contact with Aleko during the song, there can be no doubt that it is directed to him. Soprano Knarik Nerkararyan took a less emphatic approach that nonetheless got the point across and featured some velveteen floated high notes. Janna Baty opted for fiery defiance which worked equally well in context.
The Young Gypsy has first a love duet with Zemfira and later that time-honored convention, the lover’s serenade, “accompanying” himself on the guitar late at night. (Regarding the lighting backdrop, depicting night stars with perfect five-point stars was rather ludicrous.) The two tenors, Jonas Budris and Giovanni Formisano, have similarly bright, Italianate timbres, with Formisano enjoying an extra measure of power. Both tenors finished the serenade with a ringing high note.
The Old Gypsy is the wise old man of the tribe who has known the extremes of joy and sorrow. His remembrance of his year of love with, and abandonment by, Zemfira’s mother, packs as much dramatic power as Aleko’s Cavatina and contains music of exceptional mournful beauty. Bass-baritone Alexander Prokhorov and bass Pawel Izdebski both sang powerfully and movingly, Prokhorov ironically having the slightly darker color.
The most controversial interpolation occurred at the end of Rachmaninoff’s opera, with the addition of a famous gypsy song, “Solnyshko,” symbolizing the continuation of life. This was well performed with a stylish gypsy violin solo by the concertmistress leading into the chorus. And one could perhaps contend that the text is germane (“give the gray horse [i.e., the outsider] his freedom”). Purists (I must include myself), though, would argue that the addition blunts the edge of Rachmaninoff’s starkly tragic ending: Aleko’s going into exile bewailing his complete isolation (“Oh, woe! Oh, grief! Again I am alone!”) as the gypsies turn their backs on him (here quite literally). Of course, purists are generally a minority, so I leave it to the individual listener to set his limits of interpretive license.
For those seeking the ultimate contrast to the Boston Early Music Festival, Commonwealth Lyric Theater is offering the arch-romanticism of Rachmaninoff’s impressive first foray into opera composition, performed by a mix of young, talented singers and acclaimed, seasoned veterans of the operatic stage. While the composition falls short of a masterpiece (more the fault of the librettists than the composer), it has in this staging everything a great show should have: luscious music, moving drama, excellent singers and instrumentalists, beautiful costumes, and a couple of showstoppers with chorus and dancers. Aleko, staged, is a very rare bird in the U.S. I hope many music-lovers will have a chance to see it.