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Sergei Vasilievich RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
The Miserly Knight, Opera in 3 Scenes, Op.24 [65:41]
Sergei Leiferkus (The Baron)
Richard Berkeley-Steele (Albert)
Maxim Mikhailov (The Servant)
Viacheslav Voynarovskiy (The Money-lender)
Albert Schagidullin (The Duke)
Matilda Leyser (Aerialist)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vladimir Jurowski
rec. live 2004, Glyndebourne, East Sussex, England.
Sound: DTS Surround 5.1 / LPCM Stereo: Video 16:9 Subtitles: EN, FR, DE, ES, IT
Extras: Cast Gallery, Synopsis and Interviews [29 mins]
OPUS ARTE OA0919D DVD [95 mins]

This DVD has been available for many years, the performance dating from 2004, and I am reviewing my own purchased copy because, as far as I can see, it has never appeared in Music Web, although there is a partially-approving review of the original performance in ‘Seen and Heard’. I am of the opinion that this short opera is a masterly creation and a rarely heard or seen part of Rachmaninov’s output. It is worth noting that it can easily be purchased online for about 5 and that the DVD received almost universal acclaim when it originally appeared. I see that in the credits it is declared to be a joint BBC production.

Rachmaninov’s operas are problematic; the two mature ones, this and Francesca da Rimini, suffer from ‘odd’ librettos that have mitigated against their performance. The Miserly Knight is a setting of a short story by Pushkin which contains no female characters, is very dark in texture and has a lengthy monologue which tends to dominate the hour-long opera. In addition, it has a prominent role for a Jewish moneylender, characterised by Pushkin in a manner that reflected Imperial Russian attitudes to Jews, but which sits rather unhappily when presented to a liberal 21st century audience.

Rachmaninov composed it in 1904, immediately following the Ten Preludes Op.23, three years after the Second Concerto and two years before the Second Symphony. He had also composed about forty songs by the time he turned to this piece, not to mention his student opera ‘Aleko’ in 1892. There are aspects of the score – its obsessive thematic repetition and its dark colouring - that bring to mind ‘The Isle of the Dead’, composed four years later.

It opens with an immensely powerful, 8-minute prelude, in which Rachmaninov demonstrates his ability to conjure up the gloomy and darkly heavy atmosphere in memorable and inimitable style. This is not the hyper-romantic, rapturously flowing music of the Second Symphony, in fact, it leans more towards the violence of the ill-fated First. Jurovsky ensures that the superb playing of the LPO is brought to bear on it in full force.

There is a dearth of short orchestral pieces by this composer that can be used as fill-ups in CD’s, and I, for one, do not like ‘The Rock’ very much. Unfortunately, this overture does not come to a firm end, rather it fades into the singing, but I am sure that a few bars stitched onto it by a sympathetic hand would remedy that. Its climaxes make it a powerful piece in its own right.
The Glyndebourne production is pretty minimalistic, using scaffolding to represent the rooms of the miser’s castle. Apart from this, there is one ‘modern’ interpolation that would undoubtedly have caused Rachmaninov’s eyebrows to rise, and even though I am averse to overdone flights of fancy on the part of directors, I find it to be a stroke of inspiration: an aerialist is present for much of the ‘action’, she descends from the flies at the end of the prelude, and in some way represents the long-buried conscience of the miser – her open mouthed horror as she listens to him gloat over his gold whilst he sings of the cruelties he inflicted on his debtors, is striking. However, I think that she also represents the fatality of human greed, for during the prelude, she places gold coins over the eyes of the Baron, just as would be done over the closed eyes of a corpse. Fuseli’s famous painting The Nightmare is vividly recalled as she squats over him.

In the first scene, Albert awakens and tells his manservant that he desperately wants to attend a tournament, but cannot afford the new armour and fine attire that is de rigeur for such events. The moneylender enters and Albert alternately wheedles, insults and threatens him, in an unsuccessful attempt to obtain more credit. He is horrified when the moneylender suggests that he could murder his father and hence inherit, and his servant throws the Jew out. By the end of the scene, he decides that the only way to extract money from his father, is to appeal to the Duke, the old man’s overlord. Both Richard Berkeley-Steele and Viacheslav Voynarovskiy sing and act splendidly.

The second scene forms the core of the work, and consists of a twenty-minute monologue by the parsimonious Baron, Albert’s father. He enters the cellar where his money chests are stored and opens them with the intention of adding a few more coins to his hoard. As he does so he sings of the self-inflicted hardships he and his family have endured in order to allow the accumulation of wealth, and also the actions he has taken against his debtors to recover money. The aerialist makes a significant contribution here; her facial expressions of horror and her convoluted twisting and turning add to the atmosphere. However, most of the power of the scene is provided by the composer. He writes music of accumulating intensity, which reaches a stupendous tam-tam-capped climax as the Baron runs his hands through gold coins, and screams “I reign, I reign!”. Sergei Leiferkus is magnificent here.

The third scene I set in the Duke’s palace. Albert describes the problems he faces at the hands of his father and the Duke agrees to interview the Baron privately to persuade him to be generous to hi son. Albert moves away, but is within hearing, and his father enters. In the subsequent conversation the Baron squirms and twists in an attempt to avoid the Duke’s requests and eventually lies, claiming that his son is planning to murder him. Albert rushes in and calls the Baron a liar, which prompts him to challenge his son to a duel. Before anything can happen though, the Baron suffers a heart attack and dies, frantically clutching at the keys to his money chests.

Anyone unfamiliar with this music must not expect the overflowing melodiousness of Rachmaninov’s other works. Instead the composer relies on short, quite plain melodic cells that, by their repetition, create an atmosphere of gloom, oppression and desperation, all applied to a text that Pushkin certainly never intended to function as an operatic libretto. Because of this, and because of the music’s divergence from the Rachmaninovian norm, the composer created a work that has languished outside the repertory of any company.

In the extras on the DVD, Jurovsky and the director, Annabel Arden, talk at length about the problems inherent in staging the work. Jurovsky goes so far as to assert that “it is not an opera!”

I mentioned the presence of an aerialist inn the production, a feature that, to my mind, works very well indeed. Clever camera work ensures that her hovering presence, looming up behind the obsessed Baron as he gloats over his gold, is quite scary at times.

The remainder of the production, using spare scaffolding and steps works well, but I am at a loss to understand the mixture of clothing that is worn: Albert and his servant wear vaguely medieval attire, the Baron is slightly more modern and the Duke looks like a back-street spiv in a cheap modern suit.

This DVD is such a bargain, and the production, despite some problems, so gripping that it should be owned by anyone who takes an interest in Russian music. In addition, the companion piece to this Glyndebourne double-bill performance was Gianni Schicchi, and an excerpt from it is included on the DVD.

Jim Westhead



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