Rachmaninoff’s opera was his final graduation project from the Moscow Conservatory when he was 18 years old and which won him the highest prizes given that year. Based on Pushkin’s long narrative poem, The Gypsies, it has a libretto by later acclaimed stage director Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, co-founder of the Moscow Art Theatre. In the poem, Aleko, a Russian has fled his homeland as the law is after him, has taken up with a band of traveling gypsies, and has married Zemfira, a girl much younger than himself.
The opera begins after dark when the gypsies have made camp for the night. The Old Gypsy, Zemfira’s father, entertains with a tale of Mariula who he loved and who ran off with a youth from a neighboring camp, leaving him to raise their daughter alone. Aleko declares if Zemfira were ever to do as her mother did, he would get his revenge on both her and her lover. While putting their child to sleep, the scornful Zemfira mocks Aleko. Zemfira’s lover, a young gypsy, entreats her to run off with him. Just as she agrees to do so, Aleko discovers them together and fulfills his former threat. The Old Gypsy decrees that no vengeance will be taken on Aleko but he is exiled from their band forever.
The problem with the opera is that the libretto consists of a series of set musical numbers that are predictable in their sequence and the events of the story are all foreshadowed more than once. The most exciting music is that of the gypsy dances in this production performed mainly as solos by Andrei Kisselev and Yana Volkova. Lev Pugliese’s sturdy if uninventive production updated the story to the early twentieth century and set the events by a railroad yard in John Farrell’s scenic design.
In the title role, Stefan Szkafarowsky gave a fine rendition in a strong though gravelly baritone of the opera’s most famous aria, the “Cavatina.” His one drawback was that with a dour performance and snow white hair he looked a good deal older than his wife which may have changed the intended storyline. Soprano Inna Dukach as Zemira and tenor Jason Karn as her young lover were forceful in their duet. As the Old Gypsy, Kevin Thompson gave a powerful account with his resonant bass of his tale which opens the opera.
Ironically for Leoncavallo, Pagliacci, his first opera, was to prove his most popular and the only one for which he is remembered today. Also a story of nomads and revenge by murder, it tells the tale of a travelling commedia dell’arte troupe which arrives on the Feast of the Assumption 1951 in a small southern town. Canio, the leader of the troupe, is greeted as an old friend by the crowd and invited for a drink. When a villager warns him not to leave his wife Nedda behind with Tonio, his hunchbacked performer, he threatens that her infidelity would not end as a comedy as it does on stage. When the others leave, Tonio immediately professes love for Nedda but is repulsed by her as her lover Silvio arrives. Hearing them plan to run off together, Tonio warns Canio who arrives too late to catch the lover.
The evening’s show goes on as usual but with Canio seething. Nedda as Columbine attempts to play her accustomed part. Hearing her say the exact same words in the play that she said to her lover, Canio now dressed as the cuckold Pagliacco goes crazy and demands to know the name of her lover, with the audience impressed by what they think is realistic acting. When she adamantly refuses, Canio exacts his revenge as Silvio comes to Nedda’s defense and is also struck down. The last line of the opera is the famous, “The comedy is finished.”
In the wake of his auspicious debut at the Metropolitn Opera this spring as a last minute replacement in the title role of Verdi’s Otello, expectations ran high for tenor Francesco Anile who did not disappoint. His “Vesti la guibba” received a well-deserved ovation that seemed like it would not stop. Soprano Jessica Rose Cambio as proud, flirtatious Nedda proved herself to be an excellent singer/actress. Baritone Michael Corvino made an excellent work of the Prologue and his limping Tonio evoked great sympathy. Baritone Gustavo Feulien was a swaggering, virile Silvio and made beautiful music in his one extended duet with Cambio.
Pulgiese’s production of Pagliacci was an exciting, inventive performance with a great deal of propriate action. Reset in 1951 from the usual 1892, the railroad yard setting was reused to allow the box car to become the temporary stage for the play-within-the-play. While Susan Roth’s lighting for Aleko traveled from dusk to dawn, her lighting for Pagliacci depicted an orange-red setting sun leading up to a dark night of stars. Ilidkó Debreczeni’s costumes for both operas had the lived in look of clothes that had been believably worn by its characters for a long time.
While the New York City Opera’s staging of Aleko could not be called a major rediscovery, it was an admirable attempt to offer a non-standard repertory work that had probably not been seen by any of its New York audience. The real surprise was the thrilling and commanding performance of Pagliacci which bodes well for NYCO’s future life and health at Lincoln Center. In addition, the New York City Opera Chorus, under the direction of William Hobbs, gave persuasive performances in both operas, another feather in the City Opera’s cap.
Aleko & Pagliacci (September 8 – 13, 2016)
New York City Opera
Rose Theater, Jazz at Lincoln Center, 60th Street and Broadway, in Manhattan
For tickets, in person at the Jazz at Lincoln Center Box Office, call CenterCharge at 212-721-6500 or visit http://www.nycopera.com
Running time: two hours and 40 minutes including one intermission