Composed largely during 1904, these one-acters reflect Rachmaninovs involvement with opera as a conductor primarily of Russian and French repertoire, though a 1902 visit to Bayreuth awakened him to the potential of Wagners leitmotivic thinking. This is especially apparent in The Miserly Knight, composed quickly as a response to Pushkins little tragedy. The association of themes with character or ideas is understandably kept within limits in a work lasting barely an hour, and the impulsive quality of that associated with the poverty-stricken Albert as heard against the insinuating theme of Solomon the Jewish money-lender encourages contrast rather than development.
The latter is more pronounced in the magnificent central scene for the Baron, whose obsession with accumulating wealth is embodied in a scena which follows on in the tradition of mad scenes from Donizetti to Mussorgsky. The orchestral writing too is worth savouring, reflecting Debussy and anticipating later Scriabin in its harmonic freedom. A pity that the final scene, in which the Duke attempts reconciliation of father and son with ill-fated consequences, is no more than a peremptory conclusion tying up loose ends without meeting the needs of a fully-fledged apotheosis.
In its concentration of mood and scoring, abetted by the resourceful use of an all-male cast, The Miserly Knight remains an arresting work; and more overtly Rachmaninovian than its companion a treatment of Francesca da Rimini on whose libretto Tchaikovskys younger brother Modest laboured at length and with by no means satisfactory results. Perhaps the latters involvement, combined with the older composer having essayed a symphonic poem on the subject some three decades earlier, explains the Tchaikovskian aura of the score far greater than in any other Rachmaninov piece after the First Symphony, and with a histrionic quality that grows tiring on occasion.
So the opening scene, as Dante and Virgil journey into the nethermost regions of the Inferno, is awash with melodramatic swirlings and supplicatory vocalise (skilfully guided as ever by Christopher Fifield) that must have seemed excessive even in 1906. Matters improve with the lengthy monologue of Lanciotto like that of the Baron, composed with Chaliapin in mind as he lays the trap into which Paolo and Francesca will inevitably fall. Their increasingly ardent duet brings the only love music of the evening again, nearer to Tchaikovsky than the emotional territory Rachmaninov had already laid claim to, but with a cumulative intensity that spills over into the fateful reappearance of Lanciotto; the Inferno music returning as an effective framing device.
The operas were cast from strength though pride of place must go to Vassily Savenko, as adept in the arioso of The Miserly Knight as in the rhetoric of Francesca da Rimini, and singing with clarity and expressive nuance at all times. Justin Lavender coped well with the exacting demands of Albert and Paolo, while Guy Fletcher was an understated Solomon and incredulous Dante. Susannah Glanvilles vibrant Francesca made the most of the evenings female role.
Impressive too was Felix Krieger, conducting both operas as though they were repertory works pure and simple, and galvanising the Chelsea Opera Group to the extent that, some thinness of string tone aside, no allowances were needed for the ad hoc nature of the orchestra. Should Covent Garden or ENO consider giving these operas their long-overdue UK stage premieres, he would be an ideal choice, and his manifest talents will hopefully be in evidence again before too long.
- Rachmaninovs three operas the above plus Aleko are recorded on DG 453 452-2 (3 CDs) conducted by Neeme Jarvi; the operas are also available separately