Note that this is not part of the Chandos ‘Opera in English” series. This Aleko
is sung in Russian. Rachmaninov’s early opera is remarkable, especially given its early date. The inspiration is free-flowing from the composer’s pen; the integrity of the Pushkin original is maintained.
The BBC Philharmonic sounds simply superb in the opening Prelude, delivering the themes of fate and jealousy with equal amounts of foreboding and lyricism. The recording helps – superbly focused, believably balanced and with just the right amount of space. The orchestra is superbly captured throughout, a vital facet of any recording of this piece given the dances that permeate the score. The Women’s Dance is superbly characterful - the BBC Philharmonic’s wind section excels. The Men’s Dance contains more contrasts, all relished by the forces here.
The opening chorus of gypsies makes plain reference to Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances
. The chorus throughout - and it plays an integral part in the work’s unfolding - is magnificent. The Teatro Regio, Turin chorus makes a lovely, rounded sound and still sounds believably Russian.
The Russian text is given in Cyrillic only in the booklet, which might pose problems for some. At least there are translations in English, French and German and track points are frequent.
Luxury casting comes in the form of the experienced Gennadi Bezzubenkov as the Old Gypsy, full of Russian melancholy as he reminisces (track 3). The oboe’s supporting comments seem echt-Russian rather than Mancunian. The Old Gypsy Woman, who appears towards the end of the opera, is similarly convincing (Nadezhda Vasilieva).
The title role is taken by baritone Sergey Murzaev, strong and virile of voice. Aleko’s Cavatina (track 10) is powerfully delivered, a clear arioso narration until Aleko utters the magic name of “Zemfira”. The aftermath of his Cavatina (after the lines “Zemfira is unfaithful! Zemfira has grown cold!”) is a magical Intermezzo, during which the moon disappears and daybreak begins onstage. His vocal acting in the finale, when he awakes to find Zemfira and the Young Gypsy together, is excellent, right up to the moment he stabs the Young Gypsy.
As Zemfira, Svetla Vassileva is pure and yet passionate. Her big number is the Lullaby (track 9), preceded by the tender duet with the Young Gypsy - the ardent tenor Evgeny Akimov. Only his later off-stage aria, “Look how beneath the distant vault of Heaven …” disappoints, lacking the last iota of conviction. Again, the BBC Philharmonic performs a sterling service in setting up the atmosphere, here in the pointed phrasing. Vassileva sings beautifully, moulding her responses to the text perfectly.
Noseda conducts intelligently, sensitively, with full structural awareness of the dramatic trajectory. We clearly hear the Tchaikovskian influences in the orchestral writing, particularly in the yearning string phrases.
Rob Barnett rightly praised the Järvi DG recording
on this site some eight years ago. I would love to hear the Svetlanov (only part of a six-disc set, alas). I remember a Proms performance of Aleko
some years ago now which featured the magnificent Elena Prokina – perhaps it is too much to wish that she were part of the Chandos cast. Whatever, there is no doubt that this performance stands firmly on its own two feet.
My Recording of the Month, by a long way.