Theatre Royal Glasgow
Sunday 6th May
Opera is the ultimate musical experience, a combination of words, music, acting and staging, so why would you go to just hear an opera performed by an orchestra on stage with singers standing at the front? It is not just that tickets cost less because it is cheaper to put on, though that is of course true. The main reason is that for their Opera in Concert series Scottish Opera select operas not often performed because they lack the length and spectacle of the great opera repertoire. This means they are ideal for this form of presentation and with a great national opera company and orchestra and singers of international calibre, the absence of costumes, movement and scenery turns out to be less of a hindrance to enjoyment than you might think.
Scottish Opera conductor Stuart Stratford’s admirably concise plot summaries, good programme notes and subtitles translating the Russian into English made the stories of Rachmaninov’s two short operas Aleko and Francesca Da Rimini completely accessible. Added to which, the scintillating vocal performances and empathetic presentation of the principal singers made the ‘action’ and their characters believable, despite the restricted acting space.
Aleko was Rachmaninov’s Moscow Conservatoire Gold Medal winning graduation piece at the age of 19 in 1892. The story is not complicated: after an absence, Aleko returns to his band of gypsies, finds that his beloved Zemfira has betrayed him for a younger man, kills them both and then is exiled. An evocative orchestral prelude set the emotional scene and Rachmaninov’s writing for his principal singers gave each voice the dramatic impulse it needed to express the individual’s emotional journey.
Evez Abdulla’s heroic baritone, all flashing eyes and expressive gestures, gave us an Aleko both passionate and tragic, while the glorious bass of Alexei Tanovitski brought a back-to-earth reality to the role of Zemfira’s father. Zemfira, sung with astonishing beauty and power by Ekatarina Goncharova, captured both her cruelty in betraying Aleko and her ultimate powerlessness. Stirring choruses (male chorus on one side of the circle, female on the other – as if in stereo) and fine playing of Rachmaninov’s melodious and captivating music by Scottish Opera’s Orchestra, gave Aleko a deservedly fine performance.
In 1906 Rachmaninov himself conducted the first performance of his Francesca da Rimini at the Bolshoi theatre. In this concert performance the same singers took on new roles in a story based on an episode on Dante’s Inferno where, in the second circle of Hell, where the lustful are eternally punished, the poet meets lovers Paulo and Francesca and hears their story.
The unsettling harmonies in the orchestral prelude to Francesca da Rimini, with the chorus weaving wordless lines around eerie string sounds, created a sense of restless unease from the outset. Without summarising the plot, the tragedy and core meaning of the story can be summed up in the line, repeated in the libretto: “There is no greater torment than to remember a time of joy in a time of grief.” Once again, the exceptional voices of the four principals brought urgency to dangerous passion, graceful lyricism to love and somber tones to sorrow. It took little imagination to visualise the scenes in which we heard Evez Abdulla as the wronged and murderous husband of Francesca, nor the seduction of Francesca by his brother Paulo sung by Ekaterina Goncharova and Oleg Dolgov respectively, who were both making their debut with Scottish Opera. The audience were enthralled by the quality of what they heard, and we were privileged to be present at the very first performance in Scotland of this important work from Rachmaninov’s oeuvre.
This concert was the last in the current series, but the next series starting in October is already being advertised. It begins with two more Scottish premieres – of Puccini’s Edgar and of Silvano by Mascagni. With Benjamin Britten’s The Burning Fiery Furnace (at the Lammermuir Festival) to follow, I can think of few better musical ways to spend a Sunday afternoon.