‘Against fate there is no defense,” advises the Old Gypsy at the beginning of Sergei
Rachmaninoff’s “Aleko.” These words of wisdom are, unfortunately, lost on the opera’s title character, who murders his Gypsy lover when she forsakes him for a younger man. At a compact 50 minutes, “Aleko,” which premiered in 1893, when its composer was just 20, has never found its way into the standard opera repertoire, but hovering between modal and modern, it presages Rachmaninoff’s signature style, and Commonwealth Lyric Theater is giving it a rewarding, full-blooded production at Center Makor in Brighton.
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 “The Gypsies.” Aleko (a-LYEH-ko) has abandoned civilization to live with Gypsy Zemfira and her people. But the honeymoon may already be over. Zemfira’s father, the Old Gypsy, starts off the opera by recalling how her mother, Mariula, left him and the infant Zemfira after a single year, going off with a Gypsy from another camp. When Aleko asks the Old Gypsy why he didn’t pursue the faithless woman and kill her, Zemfira responds, “Who has the strength to curb love?” and the Young Gypsy she’s been eyeing adds, “Happiness is given to each in turn; what has been will not be again.” So tragedy looms: Aleko may not have the strength to curb love, but he does have a sharp knife.
At the entrance to Center Makor (which is located in Temple Bnai Moshe), a sign reminds you, “There were no cellphones or cameras in Gypsy camps” and asks that you turn your devices off. Inside, you may feel you actually are in a Gypsy camp. The stage backdrop is a kind of giant patchwork quilt in which you can see earth and sky, horse and tree. A tent holds down one side of the stage, a wagon the other; in the middle is a cooking area. Along the sides of the seating area there are wagons with musical instruments — tambourine, accordion, guitar — and bales of hay, a tent and blankets and pitchers and cast-iron cooking utensils. Laundry hangs from a line. The barefoot ushers are dressed as Gypsies.
What’s more, Commonwealth Lyric Theater’s artistic director, Alexander Prokhorov, has fleshed out Rachmaninoff’s bare-bones opera with some additional song and dance that brings the work up to 75 minutes. The new material, orchestrated to sound like Rachmaninoff by composer Moshe Shulman, doesn’t alter the musical palette, but lines like “Give the gray horse his freedom” do give a folky quality to the otherwise austere libretto, and the spotlight is transferred from Aleko to the Gypsies.
Rachmaninoff ended his opera by having the Gypsies carry off the bodies of Zemfira and the Young Gypsy (Aleko kills him as well), leaving Aleko alone on stage. Here the Gypsies force Aleko off the stage; as he goes out into the audience, they turn their backs to him. But after he’s disappeared, they face us again and sing one last paean to Gypsy life.
The performance Sunday afternoon was vibrant: well played, well sung, well danced, and well acted. (There are two casts.) Paul Soper’s Aleko looked disaffected from the start, as if he knew his Gypsy life has run out, but he sang feelingly in his cavatina, where Aleko remembers when love was new.
Knarik Nerkararyan was a powerful Zemfira verging on raw and shrill; she took pity on her father for having been deserted by her mother, but that didn’t stop her from doing the same thing to Aleko, and laughing at him to boot. Jonas Budris’s callow Young Gypsy gave silvery point to his song about trying to fix the moon (a metaphor for love) in one place. Prokhorov himself anchored the proceedings with authority as the Old Gypsy. The ensemble, which included children, was outstanding, the women shimmying their shawls and swishing their skirts and banging tambourines, the men cracking their horsewhips.
Conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya made the small orchestra sound full-sized. No libretto was provided in the program, but both the Russian text and a translation were projected house right in large, easy-to-read type.