Sergei Rachmaninoff: Aleko (1892)

Opera in one act. Running Time: 1 hour 1 minute.

PLOT: By a river in Russia, time unspecified. Aleko is a Russian who lives with the gypsies. His girlfriend is Zemfira, but she is two-timing him with one of her own tribe. He eventually kills them both and is banished from the gypsies.

OPERA:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6fRHpMKetFo

LOOK OUT FOR:

0: The prelude * is an agitated and brooding piece, but mercifully short and rather good as well with one sweet tune towards the end.

3: Some gypsies camp out for the nice to an Italianate opening chorus **.

7: An Old Gypsy (bass) tries to tell a story **: As a youth he was the lover and baby daddy to one Mariula who left him holding the baby to pursue another man. This baby is his daughter Zemfira, who is now herself the lover and baby mamma of Aleko, a Russian who has deserted civilization for the gypsy nomadic life.

12: Aleko, upon hearing this story, takes umbrage, he thinks the Old Gypsy should have killed his lover for leaving him. This leads to a good trio with Zemfira and the Young Gypsy (Tenor) who she has moved on to **. We then go into an intermezzo (actually it is a series of dances for the gypsy women and men in turns) and a bear (you might remember him from Francesca) does some gymnastics for us. Then there is another movement, all of this is okay but nothing all that interesting.

19: Suddenly, we get something with a little more octane *, the men’s dance.

24: We return to opera land with a tranquil sleepy time chorus *.

26: A sedate love duet for Zemfira and the Young Gypsy *.

29: Zemfira taunts Aleko for being an “old man” **.

31: Much of the next ten minutes is spent in a cavatina for Aleko and recurring taunts from Zemfira although she does break into a brief song *.

34: Aleko’s cavatina *** has a strong orchestral accompaniment. Look out for the semi-quotation from Swan Lake towards the end. This is the apex of the opera.

40: Another intermezzo *.

43: The Young Gypsy’s Romance **, to a harp accompaniment.

45: Now we get something chromatic and a little jazzy too *.

47: Aleko confronts the lovers ** and stabs them both fatally, first the Young Gypsy and then Zemfira who gives an impassioned death throw before herself dying.

52: The gypsies come on and the Old Gypsy confronts Aleko with the murders **. But Zemfira isn’t quite dead yet (pulling of a Desdemona) and gives some info to her father before finally kicking the bucket.

55: An old contralto gypsy woman preps everyone for the double funeral *.

57: A requiem **, very Russian and gentle in its own way with a good tune.

59: The opera ends with a brief monologue for Aleko as he is banished from the gypsies *.

COMMENTS:

Unlike his two later operas (which suffer from grim and gloom libretti and horrid dramatic pacing), I actually like Aleko. Strangely enough it seems to combine, through through-composition and the melding of singing and ballet, the same principles as Wagner’s concept of a “total art work” without at any time imitating Wagner. As with the other operas I find the production values to be bizarre (I’m not into harlequins or modern updates of operatic stories that have obvious period settings, here the colourful world of 19th century Russian Romani, hardly uninteresting), however here the music makes up for a lot of the artistic short comings far more consistently than in the other two operas. The poorest drawn of the four main characters is definitely Zemfira, who unlike the three men doesn’t get a particularly great theme song. All three operas betray strong influence from Tchaikovsky, who himself praised this work, a conservatory final exam if you can believe it as Rachmaninoff was only 19 years old when he wrote it. Aleko himself is very excellently portrayed as a tormented man who wants to life a simple life. There is a lot of padding even though the opera is very short, and the libretto does come out in patches of stop-go dramatic action, but never feels tedious. B+.

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