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8.557817 - RACHMANINOV: Aleko / The Miserly Knight / Francesca da Rimini (excerpts)
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Sergey Rachmaninov (1873-1943): Opera Highlights

Aleko (excerpts)
Zemfira - Mariana Zvetkova (Soprano)
Old Woman - Andreana Nikolova (Mezzo-Soprano)
Young Gypsy - Boiko Zvetanov (Tenor)
Aleko - Alexander Tekeliev (Bass-Baritone)
Old Gypsy - Peter Naydenov (Bass)

The Miserly Knight, Op. 24 (excerpts)
Albert - Boiko Zvetanov (Tenor)
Duke - Niko Isakov (Baritone)
Baron - Plamen Beykov (Bass)

Francesca Da Rimini, Op. 25 (excerpts)
Francesca - Mariana Zvetkova (Soprano)
Paolo - Boiko Zvetanov (Tenor)
Lanceotto - Peter Naydenov (Bass)

Sofia National Opera Chorus and Orchestra
(Sofia Bardarska, Chorus Master)
Nayden Todorov (conductor)


The Russian composer, conductor and pianist Sergey Rachmaninov was born in 1873, the son of aristocratic parents. His father's improvidence, however, led to a change in the fortunes of the family when increasing debts necessitated the sale of one estate after another, followed by removal to an apartment in St Petersburg. It was there that Rachmaninov, at the age of nine, entered the Conservatory on a scholarship. The subsequent separation of his parents and his own failure in general subject examinations brought about his move to Moscow, where he was accepted as a pupil of Nikolay Zverev, a pupil of John Field's pupil Dubucque and of Adolf von Henselt. Rachmaninov lodged in Zverev's house, where the necessary discipline was instilled, providing him with the basis of a subsequently formidable technique. In 1888 he entered the Conservatory as a pupil of his cousin Alexander Ziloti, a former pupil of Zverev and later of Liszt. Rachmaninov's other teachers at the Conservatory were Sergey Taneyev, a former pupil of Nikolay Rubinstein and Tchaikovsky, with whom he studied counterpoint, and Rimsky-Korsakov's former pupil Anton Arensky, Rachmaninov's teacher for fugue, harmony and free composition. In Moscow, as time went on, he won considerable success, both as a performer and as a composer, after graduating in the piano class of the Conservatory in 1891 and in composition the following year.

The Revolution of 1917 brought many changes. While some musicians remained in Russia, others chose temporary or permanent exile abroad. Rachmaninov took the latter course and thereafter found himself obliged to rely on his remarkable gifts as a pianist for the support of himself and his family, at the same time continuing his work as a conductor. Composition inevitably had to take second place and it was principally as a pianist, one of the greatest of his time, that he became known to audiences. Concert-tours in America proved lucrative and he established a publishing enterprise in Paris, where he lived for some time, before having a house built for himself and his family at Hertenstein, near Lucerne. In 1939 he left Europe, finally settling at Beverly Hills, where he died in 1943.

Aleko, with a libretto derived from Pushkin, was a set graduation text for Arensky's composition pupils at the Moscow Conservatory in 1892. Rachmaninov's setting won him a gold medal and the highest distinction, publication, and, in 1893, performance at the Bolshoy Theatre. Aleko has taken refuge from society to make his home with the gypsies, living with the gypsy girl Zemfira, mother of his child. [Track 2] Her old father tells the sad story of the loss of his own wife, who ran away with another man. Aleko claims that he should have taken revenge, but Zemfira declares that love cannot be tamed. She tells her father that she is tired of Aleko and is in love with a young gypsy. The latter boasts that he has no fear of Aleko. [3] & [4] The gypsies dance, in an attempt to restore their spirits.

While everyone is asleep, Zemfira arranges to meet a young gypsy, with whom she is in love. She reveals her feelings to Aleko, who meditates revenge. [5] Alone, Aleko recalls his first love of Zemfira. Dawn breaks, [6] and the young gypsy is heard singing of his love. [7] His love now consummated with Zemfira, she urges their immediate departure, but he prefers to stay, to confront Aleko. [8] Aleko appears, and prevents their escape. [9] In jealousy he stabs the boy, and then turns on Zemfira. [10] The gypsies arrive, alarmed by the sound. [11] An old woman bids the men did graves, [12] and the old man declares that Aleko can no longer live amongst them. [13] Aleko is banished from the community.

In the first decade of the new century Rachmaninov became increasingly occupied with opera, both as a conductor and as a composer. It was during his first years as conductor at the Bolshoy in Moscow that he set another Pushkin 'little tragedy', The Miserly Knight, and Francesca da Rimini, based on Dante's Inferno, both completed in 1905 and given their première under his direction the following year.

In the first of these one-act operas Albert, a young knight, profligate but kept without money by his miserly father, complains of the conditions under which he must live. He tries unsuccessfully to borrow more money from a Jewish money-lender, who suggests the possibility of poison, to be administered to Albert's father, as a way out of his difficulties. The idea is rejected, and Albert decides to complain to the Duke. The third and final scene is set in the Duke's palace. [14] Albert complains to the Duke, who agrees to see to the matter. [15] Albert leaves and the Baron appears, welcomed by the Duke. [16] The Duke asks why the Baron's son is not seen at court, and is told that the boy is wild and undisciplined. [17] He goes on to claim that his son had planned to murder him, is waiting for his death, and, at the very least, would rob him. [18] Albert bursts in, accusing his father of lying. The Baron throws down his gauntlet, which his son picks up, accepting the challenge. The Duke intervenes, banishes Albert and turns angrily to the old man. [19] For the Baron this is too much and he falls down dead, calling, as he does so, for the keys of his treasure-chest.

The companion-piece, Francesca da Rimini, an opera in one act, with a prologue and an epilogue, had first occupied Rachmaninov in 1900. The libretto, by Tchaikovsky's brother, Modest, is based on an episode at the end of Canto V of Dante's Inferno that had served as a source of inspiration for Tchaikovsky's orchestral fantasia of the same name. The second scene of the opera takes place in a room in the palace of Francesca's husband Lanceotto Malatesta, Paolo's brother. [20] An Introduction, with themes related to the lovers, is followed by the rise of the curtain on the new scene. [21] Paolo is reading, with Francesca, the story of Launcelot and Guinevere and their illicit love: "The lovely Guinevere sat alone, when there came a knight, asking for an audience for Launcelot." Francesca assures him that Guinevere should certainly allow Launcelot a meeting. [22] Paolo resumes his reading: "Queen Guinevere blushed at the mention of Launcelot but gave him leave to approach." [23] Paolo breaks off his reading, remarking on the happiness of the couple in the story. He continues reading: "She asks Launcelot what he wants … but what he cannot speak is clear from his eyes". Francesca begs Paolo not to look at her so, but he asks how he can read of the lovers' happiness unmoved. He falls down on his knees before Francesca. [24] Francesca comforts him, telling him that they may be united in a future life in Heaven. [25] Paolo asks what use to him is delight in Heaven, overwhelmed as he is now by passion; he would forgo Heaven for a kiss. He tries to embrace her, but she pushes him away; she is the wife of another. Paolo swears that she is his, but Francesca tries to make him leave her. Finally she gives way, and they embrace. [26] The lovers are now united in their joy, lost in their delight. [27] They kiss. [28] As they do so, clouds began to gather. Amid the storm, Lanceotto enters, behind the lovers. [29] He comes forward, threatening them both with a dagger. There is a cry of anguish and terror as he kills them both, and the laments of the damned in Hell are heard.

[30] The Epilogue, the counterpart of the Prologue, reveals again the shades of Dante and Virgil, while the wordless chorus represents the laments of the damned, growing in intensity. [31] The spirits of Paolo and Francesca, buffeted by the winds of Hell, appear, telling, in the words of Dante, how that day they read no more. [32] The chorus repeats the words heard in the Prologue: There is no greater sadness than to remember a time of happiness in misery - Nessun maggior dolore / Che ricordarsi del tempo felice / Nella miseria.

Keith Anderson


Sung texts and translations are available as PDF files online at http://www.naxos.com/libretti/rachoperas.htm

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