In an era when musicians mine the dark corners of many composers’ output, searching for the odd masterpiece to bring to light, the operatic efforts of Sergei Rachmaninoff have remained oddly untouched. Though a few excerpts have found their way into the vocal repertory, none of the composer’s three completed operas seems to have found a secure foothold in Western opera houses.
Alexander Prokhorov begs to differ. Prokhorov, a Russian-born bass-baritone, is artistic director of Commonwealth Lyric Theater, a small Boston opera company, and he has a passion for bringing to light little-known repertoire from his homeland. Last year the company put on Tchaikovsky's one-act opera “Iolanta,” and this year the company is tackling “Aleko,” Rachmaninoff’s first opera, written in 1892 when he was a 19-year-old student.
Discussing the opera during a recent phone interview, Prokhorov made clear that more than mere duty or curiosity lay behind his decision to stage it. “ ‘Aleko’ is a real dream come true,” he said.
The seeds of that dream were planted in Prokhorov's own student days at the Moscow Conservatory, where he was originally a piano student. When at 19 he began singing lessons, one of the first pieces he took on was the Old Gypsy’s Aria from “Aleko,” and it remained in his audition package for years. He arrived in Boston in 1999 to pursue advanced degrees in opera, first at the Longy School of Music and later at Boston University’s Opera Institute.
All the while, he said, “I was dreaming about my small company. I was thinking of making a company which will bring together a lot of enthusiastic people, different levels of professionalism. And to show the world, especially here in America, some Russian masterpieces which no one performs here.”
The title character of “Aleko” is a Russian who has grown tired of society and has joined up with a band of Gypsies who have embraced a rootless existence and free love. He falls for Zemfira, a Gypsy girl whom he wants to possess exclusively. But when Zemfira tires of Aleko and discards him for a younger man, Aleko kills them both in a fit of rage. When the bodies are discovered, Aleko is cast out of the Gypsy caravan. His final words: “Oh, woe! Oh, grief! Again I am alone!”
The opera shows, among other things, how influential Bizet's “Carmen” and Mascagni's “Cavalleria rusticana” were at the time. Prokhorov also sees the influence of Tchaikovsky's “Eugene Onegin”; the character of Aleko, he said, is “this reckless hero who’s a mix of [Carmen’s] Don José and Onegin.”
But what Prokhorov loves about the piece is that even in this early specimen, Rachmaninoff’s characteristic sound, with its dark color and unusual harmonies, is already audible. “The music itself is very original,” he said. “You can see influences, but this is already Rachmaninoff. You can see his style for the rest of his career.”
For all his love of the piece, though, Prokhorov always thought it too static, with too little stage action. He began thinking about how little Rachmaninoff had actually engaged with the Gypsies’ life in “Aleko,” and how that might have brought the piece to life. “And I started to think, I should insert some traditional Gypsy dances into the opera,” he explained.
So Prokhorov began listening to traditional Gypsy dances and chose five of them that he thought would make the piece more dynamic. He enlisted the help of Buffalo-based composer Moshe Shulman, who also reduced the score’s instrumentation for a smaller orchestra to play, to orchestrate the dances in Rachmaninoff’s style. Members of a local Jewish musical theater, Firelech, will dance them on stage.
“It’s very smooth,” Prokhorov said of the way the traditional dances fit into the score. “I bet that 70 percent of the audience wouldn’t know, is it traditional, or is it Rachmaninoff?”
The production also fulfills his dream of a production that has a familial, communal feel, bringing in musicians of widely varying ages and skill levels. The cast includes veteran singers, friends of Prokhorov from both Russia and Boston. But it also includes singers between the ages of 6 and 18 from Lucky Ten, a vocal studio for young performers of which Prokhorov is co-director.
“I’m trying to make an opera community, a family,” he said. “That’s what Commonwealth Lyric Theater is.”