Vladimir Jurowski is a wily programmer. The London Philharmonic’s season has been most interesting, their “Rachmaninoff Inside Out” series digging out rarities and putting them into context. In summer 1902, Rachmaninov extended his honeymoon to include a visit to Bayreuth, seeing The Ring, Parsifal and Der fliegende Holländer. The impact Wagner’s music made on him – particularly the use of leitmotifs – can be heard in Rachmaninov’s one act opera The Miserly Knight. Pairing a concert performance of the opera with extracts from Das Rheingold, therefore, seemed a shrewd move.

Vladimir Jurowski © Roman Gontcharov
Vladimir Jurowski
© Roman Gontcharov

There are certainly harmonic and orchestral links between the two works: ashen colours dominate; the leitmotif of Wagner’s giants, Fasolt and Fafner, isn’t far away in the prelude to The Miserly Knight; and the treatment of the Jewish moneylender isn’t dissimilar to that of Mime in Rheingold. The parallel between the greedy characters of Alberich and the Baron was also underlined by having both roles sung by Sergei Leiferkus, who had impressed here just last week in scenes from Boris Godunov.  

In the event, The Miserly Knight came off far more effectively than the excerpts from Das Rheingold. Annabel Arden, who had directed the Rachmaninov one-acter down at Glyndebourne in 2004 (also with Jurowski and Leiferkus) revisited her staging and also realised the scene between Alberich and the Rhinemaidens. What we essentially had was the opening scene in its entirety and the final “Entry of the Gods into Valhalla”, with the briefest sojourn into Nibelheim stitched between, if only to utilise the ten percussionists who hammered their off-stage anvils to great effect. The Rhinemaidens (Harriet Williams, Rowan Hellier and Natalya Romaniw in fine form) cavorted around barefoot in black evening dress in the choir stalls, while Leiferkus’ Alberich slithered and scrambled around on the main stage, until the Rheingold – beneath a Perspex platform – glowed and the baritone clambered up the side stairs. Leiferkus’ biting Slavic tone suited Wagner’s lustful dwarf nicely and I’m only sorry we didn’t get his curse on the ring from Scene 4.

After the orchestral interlude, all sense of ‘semi-staging’ was forgotten. Donner and Loge sang from music stands and Wotan looked admiringly at the Ring on his outstretched right hand, seemingly unaware that at this point in the drama the god has already ceded it as part-payment to the giants. A golden opportunity was squandered to create Froh’s rainbow bridge with a few coloured lights beneath the platform which had been so effective in the first scene.

The LPO strings swirled effectively as Jurowski dragged us through the Rhine’s depths and the brass announced an imposing entry into Valhalla, although there were a few untidy horn flubs with which to contend in both main scenes.

Matters improved immeasurably after the interval. Rachmaninov's opera, based on Pushkin, tells the tale of a Baron (the miserly knight of the title) who hoards his riches, denying access to his son, Albert, who has built up huge debts with a moneylender to enjoy court life and jousting. Faced with crippling debts, the moneylender suggests using poison to bump off the Baron, but Albert prefers to ask the Duke to intercede on his behalf. When the Baron protests, Albert challenges his father to a duel... but the shock of the Duke's rebuke causes him to collapse. His dying breath is not for his son, but an appeal for the keys to his treasure chests. 

One of the reasons for the greater success in the performance was because the semi-staging here involved costumes and props, including a huge desk acting as the Baron’s treasure chests. (The leather-bound books on the desk also provided a sneaky shield for Leiferkus to refer to his score.) Here, all the singers were well inside their roles. Vsevolod Grivnov had just the bright vocal colour for Albert, the Baron’s son, who is desperate to get his hands on his father’s fortune. Grivnov was outsung, however, by the heroic tone of Peter Bronder who impressed as the Jewish moneylender, refusing Albert yet another loan, but suggesting poison as a way to bump off the Baron.

Money is said to be the root of all evil. As the miserly Baron, Leiferkus gets the middle scene all to himself and delivered his monologue, where he is gripped by ecstasy at his fortune but despairs of his son inheriting it all, quite brilliantly. Leiferkus’ flinty baritone is in remarkably good shape and he makes every word of the text count.

Jurowski coaxed fantastic playing from the LPO, with rasping double basses and icy cellos in the prelude, while an oily bass clarinet chilled the blood in the central scene. The Duke, called on by Albert to adjudicate his case, was sung by a strangely underpowered Albert Shagidullin.

The only puzzlement was the participation of the three Rhinemaidens – there are no female voices in Rachmaninov’s opera. When the Baron died, a servant removed the Baron’s keys to his treasure chests. I thought that by handing them to the trio, it would turn the evening full circle, with the return of the treasure to the Rhine. But no. On the final chord, the keys were tossed to the Duke to take the spoils for himself instead. An evening of wily endeavours indeed.