May 13, 2010


Rachmaninoff: Aleko. Sergey Murzaev, Evgeny Akimov, Gennady Bezzubenkov, Svetla Vassileva, Nadezhda Vasilieva; Coro del Teatro Regio di Torino and BBC Philharmonic conducted by Gianandrea Noseda. Chandos. $18.99.

Samuel Arnold: Polly. Laura Albino, Eve Rachel McLeod, Gillian Grossman, Marion Newman, Loralie Kirkpatrick, Bud Roach, Lawrence J. Wiliford, Andrew Mahon, Matthew Grosfeld, Jason Nedecky; Aradia Ensemble conducted by Kevin Mallon. Naxos. $8.99.

     Rachmaninoff’s first completed opera, Aleko, brought him great success as a student at the Moscow Conservatory, where he wrote it as a graduation exercise. It won the judges’ highest prizes in 1892 – when the composer was 19 – and was first performed in Moscow that year, then given its Bolshoi Theatre premiere in 1893. Quite an accomplishment – but it did not point toward a successful operatic career for Rachmaninoff, who completed only two other operas (The Miserly Knight and Francesca da Rimini). Aleko, like The Miserly Knight, is based on a work by Pushkin. It is a one-act work lasting less than an hour, in plot being a sort of Cavalleria Rusticana featuring the gypsies of Carmen. The most original thing about it, at least retrospectively, is the extent to which the music rather than the singing tells the story, which is a straightforward-for-its-time one of love, betrayal and murder, complete with an infant in a cradle as a convenient prop. All that happens is that Aleko, an older man who has been the lover of Zemfira and has a child with her, discovers that she is unfaithful to him with someone called only Young Gypsy; in a jealous rage, he kills both lovers; and the thoroughly idealized members of the gypsy band declare themselves too gentle and kind-hearted to punish him but unable to live with him any longer – so they leave with the lovers’ bodies and Aleko ends up alone. Rachmaninoff had yet to find his personal style when he wrote Aleko – indeed, the first gypsy chorus (a celebration of freedom) sounds remarkably like something Sir Arthur Sullivan could have written – but in the darker parts of the opera, the composer is already moving in a direction he would later take more effectively. Included in the 50-minute running time of Aleko are 12 minutes of instrumental music, so there are only the bare bones of a story here. But elements of it are nevertheless effective: the Old Gypsy’s tale of his own lost love, which resulted in him being left with his daughter, Zemfira, whose mother ran off with another man; Zemfira’s Cradle Scene, really an in-your-face song of defiance hurled at Aleko; and Aleko’s Cavatina, in which he recalls the happy times with Zemfira that he now realizes are gone. Gennady Bezzubenkov is sonorously effective as the Old Gypsy, Svetla Vassileva is appropriately fiery as Zemfira, and Sergey Murzaev gets Aleko’s misery right even though his rage seems insufficient for his eventual bloody revenge. This is another in a fine series of recordings made possible by the Serge Rachmaninoff Foundation and featuring the BBC Philharmonic under Gianandrea Noseda – a conductor who is turning out to have quite a way with Rachmaninoff’s music. Aleko may not ultimately be particularly convincing, but it would make an interesting double bill with Cavalleria Rusticana or another melodrama, such as Puccini’s Il Tabarro.

     If Aleko is off the beaten operatic path, Polly is so far afield that it might take a Mars Rover, figuratively speaking, to find it. Think for a moment of The Beggar’s Opera, that wonderfully irreverent sendup of the world of 1728 by John Gay and Johann Pepusch. Now imagine a sequel, also a “ballad opera,” by the same team, focused on Polly Peachum and created in 1729. Now imagine censorship that prevents the staging of that sequel – then the death of both Gay and Pepusch in 1732 – and then, nearly half a century later, a complete revamping and toning-down of the unperformed opera, the writing of a great deal of new music for it, and the interpolation into it of works by well-known composers of the day such as Thomas Arne and Jeremiah Clarke. Imagine all that and you have Samuel Arnold’s Polly, a work about as incoherent – even by operatic standards – as you are likely to find anywhere. The Aradia Ensemble and a batch of fresh-voiced young Canadian singers press their way through this spectacle with verve and appropriate period style, but to what end is hard to say. The synopsis included with the CD is virtually impossible to follow, thanks to its constant cross-references to musical tracks that appear at different places. Reading the libretto – which, thank goodness, Naxos makes available online as a PDF file – is an absolute must in order to figure out what is going on. But, again, to what end it is worthwhile to follow the plot is unclear. The music is almost uniformly undistinguished, and virtually all the bite that made The Beggar’s Opera such a success (and an inspiration for, among others, The Threepenny Opera in the 20th century) has been removed. Polly has no teeth; it barely has gums. Anyone who reads the libretto will find out why in a scene set before the Overture is to be played. An actor called the Poet says, “I know that I have been unjustly accus'd of having given up my moral for a joke, like a fine gentleman in conversation; but whatever be the event now, I will not so much as seem to give up my moral.” And one called the First Player responds, “Really, Sir, an author should comply with the customs and taste of the town.” And there we have it: a morally instructive story in compliance with the “customs and taste” of the right-thinking people of 1777: Polly’s father has been hanged for his crimes before the work starts, Macheath is hanged for his before it ends, Polly (who has followed Macheath to the New World) proves to have noble sentiments that enable her at the end to wed a suitably noble Indian prince; and the eventual triumph of virtue is celebrated to the tune (this is not a joke) of Clarke’s famous “Trumpet Voluntary.” A small amount of the unrecorded dialogue of Polly retains a bit of the Gay/Pepusch spirit, and an occasional hint of their sly irreverence does manage to peek through in the songs. But by and large, Polly is a piece of 18th-century bourgeois gentlemanliness, without even a particularly tuneful score to relieve its dull sting. This CD gets a (++) rating – and then only because it is so earnestly sung and so well played. Now, if someone would dig up the original version of Polly and see what Gay and Pepusch wanted to create, that might be interesting.

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