Opera Reviews
19 February 2020
Untitled Document

A double dose of Rachmaninov



by Catriona Graham
Rachmaninov: Francesca da Rimini / Aleko
Scottish Opera
May 2018

Scottish Opera rounds off its Opera in Concert series with a Rachmaninov double-bill, conducted by Stuart Stratford. The theme of the series has been lesser-known Russian operas and few can be less known than Francesca da Rimini, receiving its Scottish premiere 102 years after it was first performed.

Rachmaninov’s opera is a setting of the second half of Canto V of Dante’s Inferno,  wherein Dante speaks to the shade of Francesca de Rimini, who tells him her story. Dante skips on the details, no doubt judging his readers could fill them in, but Modest Tchaikovsky’s libretto gives us some backstory.

As Lanciotto Malatesta, Evez Abdulla gives an anguished account of how he sent his better-looking brother Paolo to marry Francesca as his proxy, how his brother connived with Francesca’s family to pretend it was actually him who was the husband-to-be, and now, he, Lanciotto, has to go to war.

Ekaterina Goncharova’s sweet Francesca does offer to retire to a convent for the duration, but Lanciotto’s having none of it; he is leaving Francesca in Paolo’s care and is very jealous. One afternoon Paolo (Oleg Dolgov, who doubles as Dante) reads her an Arthurian romance, and, well, one thing leads to another and the music begins to sound a bit Liebestodlich.

Lanciotto, off-stage, cries out, ‘No, eternal damnation’ whereupon Francesca and Paolo confess that ‘On that day, we read no more.’
The chorus, as the Lost Souls, sing – mainly wordlessly – some fabulous music which slithers chromatically everywhere, creating an atmosphere of moral ambiguity as well as the despair of the second ring of Hell.

Aleko has the same adulterous them. He has joined the gypsies and married Zemfira. Alexei Tanovitski, her father the Old Gypsy, sings a scene-setting narrative in a voice like the richest of Xmas cakes. His own wife went away with another, leaving him with his young daughter; he let her go.

Zemfira has met the Young Gypsy and rather gone off Aleko. Ekaterina Goncharova taunts him with a song which could be innocent, but is not. Evez Abdulla hints at menace in Aleko’s riposte. When she goes off with the Young Gypsy, Aleko reminisces about the old days when she still loved him. On their return, Oleg Dolgov’s Young Gypsy has a delicious solo with harp accompaniment before being killed by the jealous Aleko. When Zemfira bewails this, he kills her too.

Anne-Marie Owens’ Old Gypsy Woman takes charge, telling the rest of the gypsies to dig graves. Meanwhile, in a final chorus, the Old Gypsy points out that gypsies do have standards, and living with murderers isn’t one of them. Aleko is banished and is last heard lamenting that he is once again alone.

As a graduation piece, it has some set-pieces to impress the judges, like a robust choral fugue and orchestral interludes.  The chorus of gypsies sing and dance round the campfire and one can easily imagine a staged production.  Maybe one day …

Text © Catriona Graham
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