Passion, rejection, greed, adultery, murder — everything you expect from opera was on offer from Odyssey Opera’s “Troika” Sunday afternoon at Jordan Hall.
What was less expected was the composer. Sergei Rachmaninoff is not exactly famous for his operas, yet he was barely 20 when his award-winning Moscow Conservatory graduation exercise, “Aleko,” was produced by the Bolshoi Theatre in 1893, and he was the Bolshoi’s chief conductor when his second and third operas, “The Miserly Knight” and “Francesca da Rimini,” premiered there in 1906.
It was brave, and generous, of Odyssey to present the complete set. These one-acts run an hour each, so it’s not surprising that we were, according to Odyssey director Gil Rose’s program note, the first audience in North America to hear all three on a single bill. Sunday’s performance ran just under four hours, but Odyssey’s energy never flagged, and Jordan Hall didn’t look much less full at the end than it had at the start.
If the plot of “Aleko” reminds you of Georges Bizet’s “Carmen,” that’s because the two operas derive — “Aleko” directly, “Carmen” at some remove — from the same source, Alexander Pushkin’s 1827 narrative poem “Tsygany,” which is set in a Romany camp. Aleko has abandoned his regular Russian life for Zemfira and her people, but when Zemfira was a baby, her mother left for a new lover, and Zemfira is about to do the same, telling Aleko, “Who has the strength to curb love?” Aleko may not have that strength, but he does have a sharp knife.
“The Miserly Knight” also derives from Pushkin, his 1830 verse drama. Young Albert aspires to balls and tournaments, but his miserly Baron father won’t fill his purse. Albert’s credit with the local moneylender has run out, so he appeals to his Duke to intervene. Charged by the Duke to be more generous, the Baron falsely accuses Albert of plotting to kill him before collapsing of a heart attack, still clutching the keys to his treasure chest. “Francesca da Rimini” retells the story of Paolo and Francesca from Canto V of “Inferno,” Dante’s brief narrative being fleshed out by Pëtr Tchaikovsky’s brother Modest.
Back in 2013, Commonwealth Lyric Theater gave “Aleko” a sumptuous production at Center Makor in Brighton. Odyssey’s concert presentation was austere by comparison; there were no costumes, and the singers, ranged across the front of the stage, sang to us rather than to each other. The supertitles for “Aleko” included the Russian text as well as an English translation; that was a bonus, but the translation, on a small screen, wasn’t easy to read, and occasionally it and the text lagged behind the singers. For “The Miserly Knight” and “Francesca da Rimini” we got just the translation, in comfortably large type that at times overspilled the screen.
What sustained Odyssey’s performances over the four hours was the quality of the singing and playing and the dynamism of Rose’s conducting. The centerpiece was the demanding middle scene of “The Miserly Knight,” where the Baron, reflecting on the wealth he has accumulated, sings continuously for 20 minutes. Mikhail Svetlov’s resonant bass and varied delivery conveyed a world of enthusiasm, affection, repudiation, remorse; he was so riveting, it was easy to forget that the Baron would take a widow’s last penny. Rachmaninoff isn’t totally unsympathetic: When the Baron exults in his riches, the score lights up with sunlit echoes of Richard Wagner’s “Rheingold.”
Aleksey Bogdanov was a poignant Aleko, especially in his cavatina, where Aleko recalls how Zemfira once swore to be his forever. After a brief appearance as the imperious Duke in “The Miserly Knight,” Bogdanov returned in “Francesca da Rimini” to express the agony of Lanceotto, who, like Aleko, realizes his wife is in love with another man, in this case his younger brother Paolo. Spencer Hamlin gave us an animated, complex Albert, underprivileged youth one moment, idle spendthrift the next. Yeghishe Manucharyan made the moneylender Solomon a thoughtful, reasonable guy who, as opposed to Albert, works for a living; it’s unfortunate that the libretto has him suggest parricide.
Kevin Thompson was equally commanding as Zemfira’s father in “Aleko,” Albert’s servant Ivan in “The Miserly Knight,” and the shade of Virgil in “Francesca da Rimini.” Yelena Dyachek and Andrew Bidlack doubled as Zemfira and her new lover in “Aleko” and then Francesca and Paolo, doomed couples both. They weren’t ideally matched, his attractive light tenor against her heavy operatic soprano, but their ardor was never in question.
The Odyssey Opera Chorus shone in “Aleko,” where it offered a blissful portrait of Romany life, the people happy and free in their camps, spending their nights wherever they desire and their days in work and song. Its contribution to “Francesca da Rimini” — the eerie wailing of lost shades — was mostly wordless but no less effective. With first and second violins antiphonally deployed, the Odyssey Opera Orchestra moved from celestial harmony in “Aleko” to uneasy inquietude in “The Miserly Knight” and finally high-voltage whirlwind in “Francesca da Rimini.” Rose’s sense of drama held it all together; there wasn’t a dead moment the entire afternoon.
Rachmaninoff: “Aleko,” “The Miserly Knight,” “Francesca da Rimini”
Presented by Odyssey Opera
At: Jordan Hall, Sunday, Sept. 25
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at email@example.com
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.