Rachmaninoff composed Aleko at age 19, as a student project at the Moscow Conservatory. The work is a great vehicle for a star baritone, with the part’s vocal writing hueing closer in range and tessitura to that of the baritone. The list of both dramatic baritones and high basses who have sung the role since Chaliapin first did reads like a who’s who of low-voiced 20th century singers: Petrov, Nesterenko, Leiferkus…
Vassily Gerello, a baritone whose sterling-bright voice vividly reminds this listener of the great Armenian baritone Pavel Lisitsian, fully inhabits the title role. Now that I hear Rachmaninoff’s music for Aleko sung by Gerello’s bright-voiced baritone I much prefer it to having a bass struggling with the frequently high-lying vocal line. Especially in his cavatina, Gerello sings with great depth of feeling and attention to the music, though never at the expense of the exemplarily-enunciated text.
The story, inspired by a Pushkin poem, was shaped into a libretto by Vladimir I. Nemirovich-Danchenko, Stanislavsky’s dramaturge and second in command at the Moscow Art Theatre. The story of ill-fated love, jealousy and murder belongs in the world of Italian Verismo, which makes sense when one recalls that the New York City Opera once gave Aleko in a double bill with Pagliacci.
Rachmaninoff’s music explicitly points here in the direction of the 20th century, bearing some of the unpredictably far-afield harmonic journeys of which the composer was so fond. But the vocal line is unmistakably Russian, though colored with Romani inflections depicting both the seemingly carefree gypsy life and the pain and passions lurking underneath it.
Aleko is structured in thirteen scenes each of which gets a track in this recording. Orchestral interludes, choral numbers, dance sequences, arias, ensembles and duets follow each other in quick succession, with no scene overstaying its welcome. The part of Aleko gets the one true aria in the entire score: a lovely cavatina that becomes a great solo scene for the baritone.
But notwithstanding a couple of small-scale chamber operas, and yet another two lyric projects that came to naught, Rachmaninoff found more fertile pastures writing for the piano and the orchestra. How unfortunate that is, for the composer of all of those grand piano concerti evidences here a wonderful flair for all that makes Russian opera so unique, with its use of old Slavonic gestures, long, overarching, sweeping vocal lines, and terrific dance and choral interludes.
The cast of five principals, the State Academic Choir, and the Moscow Chamber Orchestra led by Constantine Orbelian are all excellent, with the American maestro imprinting the music with his formidable knowledge of and flair for Russian music.
As the Carmen-like spitfire Zelmira, soprano Olga Guryakova displays a beautiful full-voiced lyric soprano and plenty of passion that she injects into every note of her music. Bass Mikhail Kit as The Old Gypsy is immensely effective in his role. Tenor Vsevolod Grivnov, possessor of a quintessentially Russian tenor sound is very good in his brief but important part as The Young Gypsy object of Zelmira’s extra-marital affections, and impressive in his brief romance. Contralto Elena Manikhina, makes a memorable impression as The Old Gypsy Woman.
This is an interesting release, accompanied by a complete text of the opera in Russian, transliterated into our alphabet, and accompanied by a sensible English translation. The CD with the music is accompanied by a second CD in which the actor Michael York reads the Pushkin poem, The Gypsies in English, and Russian stage and film star Vassily Lanovoy reads it in Russian.
DELOS invites its customers to link to http://www.delosmusic.com , where additional links to Rachmaninoff sites and other interesting features are available to the curious fan.
Recorded in 2000, this well engineered DELOS recent release (DE3269) is yet another contribution by the ever-enterprising label to the operatic catalogue.
Rafael de Acha