Wednesday 9 July 2014

Rachmaninov's Aleko

Oliver Zeffman
Oliver Zeffman
Rachmaninov wrote his opera Aleko in 1891 as part of his graduation from the Moscow Conservatoire. It was premiered two years later at the Bolshoi. Rachmaninov would go on to write two further operas (The Miserly Knight and Francesca da Rimini) but he is hardly well known as an operatic composer. Oliver Zeffman and the Melos Sinfonia gave us an opportunity to hear Aleko at St. John's, Smith Square on Monday 7 July 2014 in a concert performance with James Platt as Aleko, Sara-Lian Owen as Zemfira, Luperci de Souza as the young gypsy, Arshak Kuzikyan as the old gypsy and Nelli Orlova as the old gypsy woman.

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.

Melos Sinfonia - Rachmaninov - Aleko
Rachmaninov introduces two substantial orchestral interludes; in fact the orchestra is very important in the work as there is an overture too and throughout Rachmaninov makes substantial use of the orchestra. For the performance at St John's, Zeffman had his singers on a platform with the chorus, behind the orchestra, which is not necessarily good for balance in such a substantial piece. But Zeffman clearly has good control and rapport with his players, because the balance was generally highly creditable.

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).
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