Svetla Vassileva (Zemfira), Nadezhda Vasilieva (Old Gypsy Woman), Evgeny Akimov (Young Gypsy), Sergey Murzaev (Aleko), Gennady Bezzubenkov (Old Gypsy)
Coro del Teatro Regio di Torino, BBC Philharmonic c. Gianandrea Noseda
Chandos 10583 (1 disc: 51 minutes)
The discography of the great Russian 19th century tradition is irrevocably skewed: there are seven versions of Rachmaninoff’s (admittedly precocious) graduation exercise available on Amazon – way more than such pillars as Prince Igor, Khovanshchina and even The Queen of Spades. The opera is short – and is most enjoyable, but it by no means a masterpiece. David Nice’s excellently researched booklet notes provide a very fair and balanced assessment of the work that, with Tchaikovsky’s enthusiastic endorsement, launched the nineteen year old into the centre of Russian musical life. As Nice remarks, it feels like a graduation exercise, based on Pushkin’s short poem The Gypsies with a libretto-by-numbers (by Nemirovich-Danchenko, who would later find fame by co-founding the Moscow Arts Centre with Konstantin Stanislavsky) that efficiently auditions an aspiring opera-composer by requiring him to provide an Intermezzo, some dances, a narration, an offstage romanza, a psychological monologue, some fleeting character conflict, a double stabbing (almost comically sudden) and a choral threnody. Such a set-number bound structure, with more diversions than dramatic meat, has no continuous voltage, yet Rachmaninoff’s invention is memorable, and one number, Aleko’s cavatina, espoused early on by Chaliapin, is a beautifully compelling study of an aging man, racked with jealousy. Not surprisingly, the influences abound, mainly Tchaikovsky, and the Gypsy camp is strongly related to the Polovsti in Prince Igor, as well as nods to Carmen and Cavalleria Rusticana, but more surprising are the many passages that are instantly identifiable as mature Rachmaninoff. This recording, the last of a cycle conducted by Gianandrea Noseda of Rachmaninoff’s three one-act operas, is sponsored by the Serge Rachmaninoff Foundation, who promote the composers underperformed works – maybe they need to turn their attention to some neglected contemporaries, as this field is surely already over-ploughed.
Noseda, a former Gergiev assistant and principal guest conductor at the Mariinsky, has an approach that is fleet and light and refreshing, assisted by accomplished playing from the BBC Philharmonic. This works best for the (extensive) diversions and dances. The already perfunctory scenes of dramatic conflict here seem even flimsier; they could use more neurosis or lugubriousness. The Turin chorus acquit themselves well, with some resinous bass singing at the very bottom of the range, though their Russian is approximate. Gennady Bezzubenkov, a veteran Mariinsky bass, is the best of the singers with an appealingly gritty timbre, but the remainder of the cast is not so good. Though Svetla Vassileva can float some enticing high phrases, the voice splinters under pressure, and her gypsy maiden comes across as a shrew. Evgeny Akimov, as her lover, has a much too lightweight voice for such a lush romantic idiom and Sergey Murzaev’s Aleko is a bit anonymous. The recording quality is clear, if a little dry, but the whole enterprise is, frankly, completely upstaged by Neeme Järvi’s 1996 performance on DG, now available at bargain price, which though leisurely (he adds eight minutes to the playing time) is much more passionate, opulent and has a superior cast, both vocally and in terms of dramatic involvement, with Sergei Leiferkus at his considerable peak, lustrous lovers from Maria Guleghina and Ilya Levinsky, and luxurious cameos from Anatoly Kocherga and Anne-Sofie von Otter.
© Julian Grant 2007