Rachmaninov’s seldom-performed early Aleko has long been on my wish-list of to-see operas. I did not manage to find a production during my time in Russia, but the Armenian National Opera obliged tonight.
For reasons not apparent, instead of pairing this single-act opera with another one-acter, as might be normal for an opera lasting less than an hour, the Armenian National Opera instead used Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini as an opener. Other than the fact that both works are by the same composer, I could find little in common between a dark opera written at the start of Rachmaninov’s career and a flashy virtuoso work for piano and orchestra written towards the end of his career. And this in an opera house.
For the Rhapsody, I could not tell if the opera company had rolled the Steinway over from the Khachaturian Hall (which is only on the other side of the same building as the opera house) or whether the opera has a twin instrument that is equally out-of-tune and sour as the one in the Khachaturian Hall. Zhora Sargsyan pounded on the keyboard, while the orchestra perfectly matched his instrument’s bitter tone.
The orchestra sounded much better once it sunk it into the pit after the intermission, from where it provided good accompaniment to the singers rather than retaining the focus for itself. On the podium, Karen Durgaryan kept it in place even if he added nothing in particular to the interpretation.
The opera tells the story of Aleko, a Russian who has sacrificed everything in order to run off with a band of gypsies to be with Zemfira, the gypsy woman he loves. During the action, he comes to the realization that Zemfira is a fraud, and never loved him. Enraged, he murders Zemfira’s current gypsy lover and then her. Zemfira’s father, who had been similarly wronged by Zemfira’s mother but had never done anything about it, casts Aleko out of the gypsy band, cursing him to remain alone forever.
The opera, composed when Rachmaninov was only 19, lacks dramatic development but has much wonderful music. Baritone Gevorg Hakobyan played an embittered and emotional Aleko. The supporting characters also delivered strong-voiced performances, particularly Mikayel Hovakimyan and Perch Karazyan as Zemfira’s father and lover respectively. As Zemfira, Elvira Khachatryan made her stage debut, for which she looked somewhat lost: she over-sang (the manner in which she sang her lullaby for her infant would more likely have kept the kid awake terrified rather than lulled it to sleep), but there was good potential there as her career takes off.
The simple sets were evocative of a rustic gypsy encampment and set a mood which allowed the singers to do their part. The chorus blended in with the set, never upsetting the main characters (although Rachmaninov’s choral writing had not yet developed; an older Rachmaninov would have given them better material to work with in order to drive the drama forward). On the other hand, the dancing scene in the gypsy camp, performed by the ballet troupe, gave me more evidence for why I will never attend a full ballet in this town, with their clumsy clomping, tragic tripping, and stationary stumbling. But while the Armenian National Opera sticks to opera, the performance is more than adequate. Perhaps not everyone shares that opinion, though, as a surprising number of people seemed to have attended purely for the ballet and walked out of the audience immediately after that scene finished. Why they’d stay for the uncoordinated prancing and not for the singing must remain a mystery.