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Seen and Heard Opera Review
Rachmaninov, The Miserly Knight and Puccini, Gianni Schicchi, Glyndebourne Festival Opera, 22nd July 2004 (H-T W)

The first ever stagings at Glyndebourne of "The Miserly Knight", rarely heard and one of only three short operas Rachmaninov wrote, and of Puccini’s famous comedy "Gianni Schicchi" were superlative in nearly every aspect – true vintage Glyndebourne. Both were, of course, on the wish list of Glyndebourne’s young and energetic new music director Vladimir Jurowski, who had assembled a dream cast and who also conducted. The London Philharmonic, in top form, was in the pit.


Three of Pushkin´s celebrated `Little Tragedies´ had already been set to music: "The Stone Guest" by Alexander Dargomizhsky, "Mozart and Salieri" by Rimsky-Korsakov and "A Feast during the Plague" by César Cui. It was left to Rachmaninov, to compose the last tragedy. "The Miserly Knight" had its world premiere at the Bolshoy Theatre in Moscow on January 24th 1906 with Fyodor Chaliapin in the lead part of The Baron. But contrary to Rachmaninov’s expectations it was not a success. Sadly, the heavy Glyndebourne program book does not give any performance history and I do not know if it had ever been done in the UK before but this dark and overpowering music with a hint of Wagner is certainly worth rediscovery.


All four of the `Little Tragedies´ deal with one specific deadly sin – in this case avarice. In the first scene, Albert (Richard Berkeley-Steele) complains to his servant (Maxim Mikhailov) that his rich father, The Baron, does not give him enough money to prepare for a tournament in style. He asks the moneylender (Viacheslav Voynarovskiy), but he is not willing to help out again. He would only give him poison to shorten his father’s life, and that Albert rejects furiously. Instead, he plans to turn to the Duke, to force his father to support him in an appropriate way. In the second scene, the Baron (Sergei Leiferkus) opens his safe, looks with proud at his hoard of gold and reflects without the slightest conscience on the human misery caused in its acquisition. He does not trust his son and wishes that the moment he himself dies, he could come back and take the keys to the safe back with him to his grave. In the third and last scene, the Duke (Albert Schagidullin) has summoned the Baron, while Albert waits in the next room. He hears of all the various crimes his father accuses him of and storms in calling his father a liar. The Baron throws his glove towards Albert and challenges him to a duel. Separated by the Duke, the Baron is suddenly alone. He cannot breathe and instinctively searching for his keys he suffocates and dies.


The opera, of just seventy minutes duration, has an incredible and overpowering musical impact, and the production (Annabel Arden) along with the simple but oppressive stage design (Vicki Mortimer) on a revolving stage, played their part in intensifying the drama. Vladimir Jurowski and the mainly Russian soloists were in their element. I only objected to the invention of an omnipresent aerialist, who had already disturbed the prelude and, later on, over-shadowed the Baron’s movements symbolising avarice. It is symptomatic of the worst and most disturbing acts of vandalism in productions nowadays not to let the music speak for itself but to support the music with visually unnecessary elements, which easily distract the concentration of the audience from the composer’s intentions.

After the dinner interval it was Italian comedy at its best, full of detailed characterization, fun, speed and temperament. Puccini’s "Gianni Schicchi", together with "Il Tabarro" and " Suor Angelica" (part of his  "Il Trittico" and first performed at the Met on the 14th December 1918) is a stroke of genius. The houselights went off and the same metal-framed scenery as before opened giving way to a typically Italian interior, the home of the rich Buoso Donati, who has just died. His body is surrounded by his grieving, but also greedy relatives, who all hope to share his wealth. A rumour spreads that he has left everything to a monastery. Finally, the young Rinuccio (Massimo Giordano) finds his will. He releases it to his relatives only after being promised in marriage Lauretta (Sally Matthews), the daughter of Gianni Schicchi (Alessandro Corbelli), a notoriously shady local character. The rumour that Donati had left everything to a monastery is, of course, right and the expectations of his relatives turn into fury – what are we to do now? For Rinuccio only the clever Gianni Schicchi can help – he had secretly called for him already. The relatives treat him badly at first and step back from their promise to let Rinuccio marry his daughter as he cannot expect any inheritance. Now the comedy really starts. Gianni Schicchi is indeed far too clever; quickly he twists everyone round his little finger. He decides that Donati’s death has to be kept a secret. In the presence of all the relatives Schicchi, disguised as Buosa Donati, dictates his last will to a lawyer. But when it comes to the vast amount of property, Schicchi (alias Donati) leaves everything to his dear old friend Gianni Schicchi. There is no way out for the relatives unless they wish to avoid a scandal. Schicchi drives them out of his new property and triumphs; Lauretta and Rinuccio embrace each other.

I have not seen such dedicated ensemble acting for a long time (largely due to the producer, Annabel Aden, who seems to know Italian life and temperament very well indeed – a promising Glyndebourne debut.) Each part was superbly cast and it was a joy to hear again singers like Marie McLaughlin (La Ciesca), Felicity Palmer (Zita) and Adrian Thompson (Gherardo), all so much part of Glyndebourne’s past.

Vladimir Jurowski conducted with astonishing verve and the London Philharmonic was in splendid form. But it was the grandiose singer-actor Alessandro Corbelli who dominated the production. Even if this had not been the case, Sally Matthews and her performance of Lauretta would have stayed in the memory forever. Her timbre, her delicate vibrato, the never strained beauty and lightness of her voice in `O mio babbino caro´ - all were second to none. Having heard her only once before (in the soprano part of Mozart’s Requiem) I firmly believe her to be the most spellbinding lyric soprano today.     


Hans-Theodor Wohlfahrt     


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