Opera Lively is completing today our coverage of Opera Carolina’s continental premiere of Rachmaninoff’s Aleko by a professional opera company, in double bill with Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. Please find below our review of the opening performance, the matinée on 4/10/2016.

The show will run twice more at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center in downtown Charlotte, NC, on Thursday April 14 at 7:30 PM, and Saturday April 16 at 8 PM. Tickets ranging from $19 to $150 can be purchased by clicking [here].

Don’t miss our three exclusive interviews with the principal singers, spanning five roles.

Elizabeth Caballero (Zemfira and Nedda): click [here]

Alexey Lavrov (Aleko and Silvio): click [here]

Jeffrey Gwaltney (Canio): click [here]

Aleko, opera in one act, sung in Russian (with English supertitles)
Music by Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)
Libretto by Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchemko, after the poem The Gypsies by Alexander Pushkin
Premiered at the Moscow Conservatory, on May 19, 1892

Pagliacci, opera in a prologue and two acts, sung in Italian (with English supertitles)
Music by Ruggero Leoncavallo (1857-1919)
Libretto by Ruggero Leoncavallo, claimed by him to be based on a true incident he learned of during his childhood, and claimed by others to be based on the play La Femme de Tabarin by Catulle Mendès
Premiered at the Teatro Dal Verme, Milan, May 21, 1892

The Charlotte Symphony Orchestra conducted by James Meena
The Opera Carolina Chorus, Gerry Clonaris, Chorus Association President

Stage Director – Michael Capasso
Lighting Design – Michael Baumgarten
Wig & Make-up design – Martha Ruskai
Fight Coordinator – Kara Wooten
Costume Design – AT Jones and Sons, Inc.
English Titles – James Meena

Casts

Aleko

Aleko – Alexey Lavrov *
Zemfira – Elizabeth Caballero *
Young Gipsy – Jason Karn
Zemfira’s Father – Kevin Thompson
Old Gipsy Woman – Irina Mishura

Pagliacci

Canio, Pagliaccio – Jeff Gwaltney *
Nedda, Colombina – Elizabeth Caballero *
Silvio, Nedda’s lover – Alexey Lavrov *
Tonio, Zanni – Giovanni Guagliardo
Beppe, Arlecchino – Jason Karn

* Opera Lively interviewees, see above for the link to their interviews

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Opening panel for Aleko at Opera Carolina

Opening panel for Pagliacci at Opera Carolina

It is admirable that Opera Carolina has staged the first professional performance of Aleko in North America. This short opera was the first one composed by Rachmaninoff when he was 19 years old and a student at the Moscow Conservatory. It is well-known in Russia but rather obscure in other countries, undeservedly so. It is very much worth staging, and arguably it is a better opera to pair withPagliacci than the usual option (Cavalleria Rusticana) given the similarity in plots and even some stylistic similitude (not to forget the coincidence that the two operas premiered two days apart). Certainly the score of Aleko is more Russian Romantic thanPagliacci’s pre-modernist verismo, but the themes in the Russian piece are rather in close touch with Italian verismo. Both operas feature a love triangle with a married couple and the wife’s lover, resulting in the betrayed husband killing the lovers. Aleko’s setting is a gypsy tribe, while Pagliacci’s is a village in Calabria; otherwise the stories are very close to each other.

In summary, the pairing works and one opera fits the other like a glove, and vice-versa.

These two pieces do have differences beyond their musical styles. We get in Zemfira a more defiant and assertive woman, who insists that her taking a lover is consistent with the Gypsy lifestyle, and who doesn’t want any change in her situation. She doesn’t hide it from her husband Aleko. Nedda on the other hand is more terrified of Canio, and she takes a lover in the hope of fleeing her husband’s tyranny. While comprimario characters in Aleko are less developed, in Pagliacci we do get the important role of the evil Tonio who orchestrates the events. It is clever from Leoncavallo to present the same artist singing Tonio as the narrator in the prologue, symbolizing the fact that he is in control.

Even though Nedda is more timid than Zemfira, she does have her moments of fierceness, like when she confronts a threatening Tonio.

Aleko makes more use of chorus and of lush, melodious orchestration. It is generally softer and more subdued, and very musically beautiful. It is, however, dramatically less convincing thanPagliacci, which has a very lively score and characters that are more complex, more fleshed out, and better developed – not to forget the interesting play-within-the-play with opportunities for comic relief when the Commedia dell’Arte stock characters are brought up. Also, while Aleko is more linear, Pagliacci has abrupt narrative changes (such as the comedic play-within-the-play suddenly turning sour) that are quite effective in theatrical terms. Leoncavallo was in his mid-thirties when he composed Pagliacci, while Rachmaninoff was only 19 when he wrote Aleko.

So, all things considered, Pagliacci is the superior work, but Aleko is a nice appetizer before the main course (which is probably why maestro Meena chose to start with the Russian piece), and they go well together like wine and cheese.

With the merits of both works well established, let’s analyze the performance.

The show opened with a beautiful scene featuring simulated snow falling from the top, and firepits contributing to the foreboding mood in the gypsy camp. The sets were simple yet tasteful, with a projection of a red moon for the last scene. A- grade.

The Opera Carolina chorus with 44 singers is getting better and better as the seasons go by, and today was no exception. Being choral music one of the main elements in Aleko, the excellence of this ensemble greatly contributed to the musical success of the afternoon. Maestro Meena as usual had perfect control of the exquisite Charlotte Symphony, and the soothing melodies of the score got to flow very nicely.

Elizabeth sang and acted Zemfira very well. Her voice is beautiful and well-modulated, with great technical assurance. Kevin Thompson as her father was a good surprise and arguably the best singer in the first opera, with a booming and pleasant bass instrument. Paradoxically Alexey Lavrov seemed a bit less comfortable in Aleko (performed in his native tongue) than inPagliacci – maybe a question of warming up – both in his singing that seemed a bit subdued, and in his acting. Comprimarios performed correctly. Overall the singing in the first opera was a B+, while the chorus and the orchestra were both A+. Costumes were very beautiful, A+. Lighting and blocking were competently done. B+. Overall, Aleko by Opera Carolina gets an A rating from Opera Lively; recommended.

Applause was relatively tepid. While musically things went very well, dramatically Aleko‘s libretto is a bit weaker, and the overall effect didn’t make the public catch fire. I blame the libretto rather than the opera company.

This was not the case with the second opera. It started already very well with the singer who did the best job throughout the afternoon, Italian baritone Giovanni Guagliardo, who was spectacular during the prologue and kept delivering Tonio’s lines with beautiful musicality in his phrasing. Alexey warmed up and did a lot better as Silvio, especially in his touching duet with Nedda. Jeff Gwaltney was notable for his acting, and it was interesting to learn from his participation in the Q&A at the end that he has a background in spoken theater. His “Vesti la giuba” was touching and well sung. While his volume is a bit restrained, his pitch control is good. Elizabeth did seem to tire a little bit towards the end, after her tour-de-force singing Zemfira and picking up Nedda immediately after that. While her voice had some signs of fatigue, her acting was great, with very good stage presence. Singing overal was A grade.

Sets for the second opera were again simple but tasteful and efficient, with a railroad wagon opening up as the itinerant theater. B+. Costumes were very well done (updated to 1951), A- grade. Once more the chorus was sublime, A+. The blocking and stage direction in the second piece displayed superior quality, with the villagers reacting energetically to the play-within-the-play in very well orchestrated movements. A+

The maestro and the Charlotte Symphony played even more beautifully in Pagliacci and deserved a score of A++. After the lower key Aleko, when Leoncavallo’s piece rolled in the public did get a lot more excited, and applause at the end was way more energetic. Overall Opera Carolina’s Pagliacci gets an A+ from us; highly recommended.

After this very enjoyable matinée, the singers and maestro Meena sat with the public for a Q&A session. Elizabeth was very charming and funny, and the two male principals also had compelling answers.

Patrons who haven’t seen this show yet should make all efforts to attend one of the two remaining performances. Not only they’ll have an opportunity to see a rarely given Russian opera, but will also see a highly entertaining and well-done Pagliacci.

Let us continue to support this great regional opera company. They have announced the 2016-2017 season. Elizabeth Caballero will be back to sing Violetta in La Traviata. We will also have Il Barbiere di Siviglia, and La Fanciulla del West.

To make the afternoon even more enjoyable, I had phenomenal fish and chips at the nearby Irish pub called Rí Rá (on Tryon street, half a block from the opera house). It was the best one I’ve had since a memorable rendition years ago on the ferryboat on my way from France to England.

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