There has been no Russian opera at the Colón since 2006, when Marcelo Lombardero programmed the premiere of Mussorgsky´s second version of "Boris Godunov". So the first performances in Argentina of two Rachmaninov lyrical pieces is obviously a very good idea. We saw "Aleko", written when the composer was 19, a commission from the Moscow Conservatory as a graduation score in 1893. And "Francesca da Rimini", written intermittently betweern 1900 and 1905 and premiered in January 1906. This leaves for the future the other Rachmaninov opera, "The avaricious knight", created in 1905 and a very interesting and introspective piece.
His saturnine temperament is clearly grasped in the way he narrates musically two tragic love triangles, albeit very different ones. "Aleko" is based on Pushkin´s poem "The gypsies" as adapted by Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, a strong personality of the stage that founded with Konstantin Stanislavski the Moscow Theatre of Art. The story has parallels with that of Leoncavallo´s "I pagliacci": in "Aleko" a group of nomadic gypsies camps and for their own entertainment they dance and sing, in "I pagliacci" a small company of nomadic comedians goes from town to town playing "commedia dell´arte" characters. In both a man a good deal older than the girl is cuckolded by a young paramour, and in both he kills girl and lover. There are also aspects that recall Puccini´s "Il Tabarro".
Naturally at 19 Rachmaninov´s style is still in a budding condition, but his talent was already obvious: colorful orchestration, a gift for melody, energy in the joyous moments and a sense of ominous drama in Aleko´s monologue. True, it isn´t much of a story and there´s a lot of padding to arrive at an hour´s length (choruses and dances) but something similar happens, e.g., in Mascagni´s "Cavalleria Rusticana" (still another triangle) and it hasn´t diminished its success although it is objectively a fault.
"Francesca da Rimini" was finished when the composer was 31 and indeed it is a starkly dramatic work, with a much more mature musical language: very rich and suggestive chromatic harmony, an unerring dramatic sense in the intimate blend of the vocal line with the words, off-stage choirs of oppressive strength, a powerful monologue for Lanceotto Malatesta, and an exalted love duet for Paolo and Francesca. Two aspects must be told: Rachmaninov was a disciple of Tchaikovsky, who composed a tremendous tone poem on the subject; and our composer was teacher to Chaliapin, who often sang in both operas.
Of course, the grim Medieval tale about the lovers was referred by Dante in the "Hell" section of his "Divine Comedy", condemning them to eternal turmoil in the circle of the lustful. Rachmaninov asked his librettist Modest Tchaikovsky (brother of the composer) to include Dante and the Spirit of Virgil in the libretto, probably taking the idea from Ambroise Thomas´ opera of the same name. Thus the opera has a prologue and epilogue in Hell flanking the two scenes that happen in Malatesta´s Palace in Rimini. The total length is 70 minutes.
The Colón assembled an able cast for both operas, featuring the specialist bass-baritone Sergei Leiferkus, who recorded them in 1996 with Neeme Järvi. Granted, his voice shows the toll of time, but he is still a major artist and a riveting presence. Soprano Irina Oknina (debut) had too much vibrato at first in "Aleko"; as she advanced in her Zemfira the voice came under control, and she was quite good as Francesca. There she was partnered by a huge dramatic tenor, the American Hugh Smith, whose voice is as ample as his girth, though his vocal method could be improved. The tenor in both was Leonid Zakhozhaev, known in Argentina in Wagnerian roles (Tristan and Siegfried) and quite comfortable (as logical) in these Russian parts (Young Gypsy in "Aleko", Dante in "Francesca). A very good young bass, Maxim Kuzmin-Karavaev, sang "An old gypsy" in "Aleko" (where he recounts his tragic marital experience and seems to influence Aleko) and the Spirit of Virgil. The Choir under Miguel Martínez was a positive factor. The Orchestra began "Aleko" rather tentatively but later found its feet; it was much better in "Francesca", where the knowledge of conductor Ira Levin was evident. A relevant fact: Levin, after showing his mettle in "Lohengrin" (Wagner) and "Oedipe" (Enesco), has been named Principal Conductor and will also conduct "Die Frau ohne Schatten" (Strauss) and "Un Ballo in Maschera" (Verdi).
And now, as so often, the bad news: the productions by the Romanian Silviu Purcarete (debut) were completely wrong-headed. Items: a) there is no relationship between both works except the triangle side, but the producer used a unit set (that plague) for the gypsy camp (transformed into a hangar with a red car obstructing the view to no avail) and for the whole of "Francesca"; b) in a masterpiece of silliness, the gypsy dances were transformed into circus acts by a couple of acrobats, one of them being a "bear", and surrealistically, car and bear show up in "Francesca"...c) poor Paolo and Francesca can´t even sin without a whole bevy of voyeuristic keletons around them. For the record, stage and costume designs were by Helmut Stürmer, the lighting was by Henry Skelton (leaving often singers in the dark) and the choreography by Karel Vanek left me speechless for I only saw acrobats. And why was a "dramaturg" listed? What´s his use?
And so on...
For Buenos Aires Herald