St John’s Smith Square
Aleko – James Platt
Zemfira – Sara-Lian Owen
Young Gypsy – Luperci de Souza
Old Gypsy – Arshak Kuzikyan
Old Gypsy Woman – Nelli Orlova
Chorus (chorus master: William Cole)
Oliver Zeffman (conductor)
Aleko, the libretto by Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, after Pushkin, was assigned in 1892 to three members of Anton Arensky’s composition class at the Moscow Conservatoire. Rachmaninov’s setting, made at the tender age of nineteen, was the only one to be published (though not in full score until 1953) or performed, winning the young composer the ultimate prize of a gold medal. In truth, it needs all the dramatic help it can get, more a reflection upon the libretto, which amounts to little more than a succession of numbers rather than a real dramatic development, than upon the score itself. Nevertheless, even a concert performance is of interest. One hears the influences, as one always does in immature works. Tchaikovsky looms largest; he was so impressed that he suggested Aleko form a double bill with his own Iolanta. The choral writing echoes Eugene Onegin; the orchestral writing often echoes the symphonic as well as operatic Tchaikovsky. There are hints of the Mighty Handful too, certainly of the Liszt of the symphonic poems, and perhaps also of Wagner.
If there is little that suggests Rachmaninov’s mature voice, the writing is remarkably assured, and so it sounded in this generally excellent performance from the Melos Sinfonia and its artistic director, Oliver Zeffman. If there were a few rougher moments, the string sheen and the sheer power of the orchestra as a whole, brass and all, proved mightily impressive, with a splendid sense of idiom. Zeffman guided the score’s progress wisely: flexible, without a hint of stiffness. The chorus, trained by William Cole, sang very well too, as did most of the soloists. If James Platt as Aleko and Sara-Lian Owen as Zemfira took a little time properly to settle, it was only a little time. Their diction, dramatic commitment, and musical line were excellent, Owen had one believe more in the gypsy girl who transfers her affections – shades of Carmen, though it was Pushkin’s narrative poem that would have influenced Merimée – more than one might have thought possible, in a performance which increasingly yearned for the stage. Arshak Kuzikyan revealed a passionate, dark-hued bass voice as the Old Gypsy, his lines shaped intelligently throughout: his was a compelling performance indeed, having one wish that there was more to hear from him. Nelli Orlova’s brief appearance as the Old Gypsy Woman had one wish for more too. Only Luperci de Souza’s performance as the Young Gypsy for whom Zemfira falls fell flat, audibly strained, at times seriously struggling. Perhaps it was just an off-night; everyone has them.
At any rate, this marked a wonderful opportunity to hear a fascinating early work. The Melos Sinfonia will next be heard in September at the Grimeborn Opera Festival and the Rose Theatre, Kingston, in a coupling of Walton’s Façade and Peter Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs for a Mad King, whose Russian premiere they well give in St Petersburg in November.