The Melos Sinfonia is an ensemble founded by the conductor Oliver Zeffman, and based around a body of young college and post-college musicians giving them opportunities to play unusual repertoire. Zeffman spent 10 months training as a conductor in St. Petersburg and so he has a particular affinity with Russian music.
Rachmaninov's Aleko has a libretto based on Pushkin's poem The Gypsies (a poem which heavily influenced Prosper Merimee when he was writing the novella which developed into Bizet's opera Carmen). The libretto by Vladimir Hemirovich-Danchenko is frankly a rather static piece, with little opportunity for character development. Essentially Aleko (James Platt) is a Russian who is living with gypsies. He lives with and loves the gypsy Zemfira (Sara-Lian Owen) but she typifies the rather carefree gypsy attitude to life and has taken up with another gypsy (Luperci de Souza). There is a great deal of local colour, with plenty of choruses and an introductory story telling from the old gypsy (Arshak Kuzikyan). Musically, the work reflects the Rachmaninov of the First Symphony (premiered in 1897), but also looks back to composers such as Borodin, and clearly Prince Igor was one of Rachmaninov's models.
The young bass James Platt made a robust Aleko, giving us a lovely cavatina in his one relaxed moment. But generally Aleko was clearly a fish out of water, and Platt sang his line robustly with a trenchancy which reminded me of John Tomlinson. As his love interest Sara-Lian Owen was delightful, displaying a lovely warm and substantial soprano voice but still able to simper and the right sort of sexual frisson. As her love-interest, Luperci de Souza had all the notes for what sounds to be quite a high tenor part. He sang neatly and creditably, but I felt that the role probably need a rather heavier, more developed voice. Arshak Kuzikyan impressed in the role of the Old Gypsy, singing his opening solo with a lovely flexible grainy tone.
Almost the stars of the evening were the members of the orchestra, playing Rachaninov's richly romantic score with a fine style. Perhaps they took a little time to warm up, but Zeffman soon had them bringing a lovely sweep to Rachmaninov's melodies.
This was a wonderful opportunity to hear some rarely performed Rachmaninov, and get to hear talented young performers in action. The Melos Sinfonia has quite a busy season planned with performances of a double bill of Walton's Facade and Maxwell Davies Eight Songs for a Mad King in London (at the Grimeborn Opera Festival and at the Rose Theatre, Kingston), and in St Petersburg (where they will be giving the Russian premieres of the works). There are also so new commissions, with are being performed in Russia and in London (at Kings Place).
Elsewhere on this blog:
- Entrancing: Lucy Crowe at the Wigmore Hall - concert review
- Lithe and vivid: Monteverdi's 1610 Vespers from Ambronay - CD review
- Window on another world: Felcien David melodies - CD review
- Last of the first: New Saariaho at RFH - concert review
- Young Talent: Yehudi Menuhin School Festival Concert - concert review
- Girl Power: Girl Choristers of Southwark, Guildford and St Albans Cathedrals - concert review
- Brilliance and Darkness: Prokofiev violin sonatas - CD review
- Alex Baranowski: music for Last Days of Troy - theatre music review
- Marie e Marion: Anonymous 4 - CD review
- Fizzing: Rossini La Gazzetta - opera review