Sergei Rachmaninov’s operatic output consists of three one-act works composed between his graduation at age 19 from the Moscow Conservatory in 1892 and his two years as chief conductor at the Bolshoi ending in 1906. Though he composed works for the voice over the remaining forty years of his life, he never completed another opera. Aleko, despite its masterful orchestration and originality, betrays the youth of its composer. The Miserly Knight and Francesca da Rimini stand on firmer ground dramatically, though the former is marred by the blatant anti-semitism of its Pushkin source. All three show the influence of Feodor Chaliapin who inspired and  helped put Aleko on the map. Rachmaninov went on to compose the Baron and Lanceotto Malatesta with Chaliapin in mind but the singer withdrew and others performed the double bill premiere under the composer’s baton.

Aleksey Bogdanov
© Kathy Wittman

 Aleko is the student Rachmaninov showing what he can do with opera set pieces. Unfortunately choral and orchestral interludes and an extended dance episode, masterful though they are, dilute the drama and rob it of the visceral punch it should have. Aleko’s Canio-like murder of his younger wife and her lover passes so quickly it seems an afterthought. One can take pleasure in the music as music, however, and become caught up in the dramatic intensity of Aleksey Bogdanov’s Aleko and the lyrical flights of Yelena Dyachek and Andrew Bidlack as the young lovers, which partially compensated for the libretto’s weakness.

Odyssey Opera in Jordan Hall
© Kathy Wittman

It remains to be seen whether an expert staging could make Aleko more dramatically compelling, but both The Miserly Knight and Francesca da Rimini would definitely benefit from full fledged productions, particularly the latter with its many opportunities to deploy the special effects now commonly available. Chaliapin excelled at extended monologues expressing a range of emotions and moods. Each of these three operas has such a monologue. Michael Svetlov’s Baron in The Miserly Knight was a tour de force of vivid declamation and characterization. The opera is based on one of Pushkin’s more grotesque stories, but Svetlov succeeded in humanizing the Baron despite his all-consuming avarice. Spencer Hamlin negotiated Albert’s high tessitura with expressive finesse and Yeghishe Manucharyan successfully toned down the caricature of the moneylender despite Albert’s anti-Semitic aspersions. Aleksey Bogdanov returned as a commanding but conflicted Duke.

Mikhail Svetlov
© Kathy Wittman

Bogdanov had his own Chaliapin moment with a powerful performance of Malatesta’s tortured monologue in Francesca da Rimini. Aleko’s lovers returned to take on the roles of the doomed Paola and Francesca. Bidlack provided one of the highlights of the afternoon with Paolo’s serenade. He and Dyachek ratcheted up the tension in their crucial scene, building from the innocent reading of an Arthurian tale to a torrent of passion culminating in the chorus’ orgasmic moans.Those moans chillingly morphed into the lamentations of the damned after the couple’s murder, as the scene reverted to Dante and Virgil in the Second Circle and the opera closed.

With strong contributions from orchestra, chorus, and supporting characters, Odyssey Opera made a convincing case for more frequent performances of these operas, particularly the last two which can stand well together or on their own with other orphaned one-acts.

****1