What a happy idea it was to pair Rachmaninoff’s less-known “Aleko” with Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci,” arguably the most famous opera of them all. This is the first time “Aleko” has ever been staged on these shores, and the first time these operas have ever been performed together.
As the marriage of a dark horse with a warhorse, it was a risk but it paid off.
Despite Rachmaninoff’s great reknown, his operas, his lovely songs and his deepest work, “The All Night Vespers,” are virtually unknown outside of Russia. All have his special brand of brooding melancholy, and his love of a long, seamlessly unspooling melodic line. “Aleko” was written as a student work, but no matter: At 18, Rachmaninoff was already himself. “Aleko” is a beautiful score in which the remnants of Borodin and Tchaikovsky soon evaporate into Rachmaninoff of the first water. His piano concertos and symphonies originate here.
The main flaw in “Aleko” is an unsympathetic title character, who murders his vixenish wife, Zemfira, and her new boyfriend in a jealous outburst. For this, he is banished by the gypsy tribe who had previously sheltered him. Their final chorus, both a banishment and a benediction, has something of the religious quality of the dark-hued “All Night Vespers.”
Alexey Lavrov is a fine Aleko and his cavatina, “All the gypsy camp is sleeping,” withstands starry comparisons from the past. He is not as convincing an actor as he is a singer, but Rachmaninoff doesn’t give Aleko more than melancholy to hang onto.
Elizabeth Caballero, however, identified so well with Zemfira that her singing and acting could almost not be told apart. She was just as convincing as Nedda in the “Pagliacci” that followed.
Kevin Thompson as the Old Gypsy has a bass voice to sit up straight for. Tenor Jason Karn gave thoughtful, detailed accounts of both his roles: Zemfira’s lover in “Aleko” and Beppe in “Pagliacci.”
“Pagliacci” may be described as the opera that unleashed a century of homicidal clowns. It is the age-old tale of the clown who must make others laugh though heartbroken, and who comes to kill she whom he loves most, in order not to perceive himself as a clown.
It is one of the pinnacles of verismo – “life as it is” – operas. It is also the first opera ever filmed (in 1907), the first phonograph record to sell over a million copies (Caruso’s “Vesta la giubba,” also 1907), and the only opera to be featured in both Brian de Palma’s “The Untouchables” (1987) and a Seinfeld episode (“The Opera,” 1992).
This production, under the direction of Michael Capasso, sets it in the realm of Italian Neorealist film. Caballero does a spot-on impersonation of Guilietta Masina in Fellini’s “La Strada” or “Nights of Cabiria,” and the men dress much as they do in “The Bicycle Thief” – it’s gritty. The set is a railroad boxcar, in a place so sparse that when bare lightbulbs are strung across the stage in the second act they seem almost gaudy.
As an updating, this turns out to be that rarest thing: an apt one. It puts “Pagliacci” into the framework of Fellini and de Sica, and Rossellini, who were verismo’s heirs. The austere set was lent poetry by the evocative lighting, the crowd movement was just on the edge of stylized, the chorus was fluent and subtle. Caballero’s Nedda required a double take, so different was she from Zemfira. The same was true of Lavrov’s shift from the grizzled, saturnine Aleko to the ardent and ill-fated Silvio. Jeff Gwaltney seemed more philosophical than is usual for the villainous Canio, but this interpretation worked. Giovanni Guagliardo seemed literarily to chew the scenery as Tonio, but he also brought tears to the eyes.
The orchestra knew that this was an occasion and played like it under the baton of Maestro James Meena.