Rachmaninoff’s works are known all over the world—his piano concertos (at least two of them), his symphonies (at least one or two of them), many piano pieces, several songs. But his operas are barely known at all. There are three of them. Call them Rach operas, if you like.

The first to be composed was Aleko, which many of us know for one reason, only: Chaliapin recorded an aria—Aleko’s Cavatina—from that work. The opera is a one-acter, based on a narrative poem of Pushkin, The Gypsies. Rachmaninoff’s second opera is The Miserly Knight, also based on Pushkin. The third is Francesca da Rimini, taken from Dante, of course. It is not to be confused with the opera by Zandonai, nor is it to be confused with the tone poem by Tchaikovsky. Speaking of Tchaikovsky: his brother Modest wrote the libretto for Rachmaninoff’s opera.

Rachmaninoff was a master of vocal writing and orchestral writing.

Rachmaninoff was a master of vocal writing and orchestral writing. He produced marvelous songs and choruses (think of the Vespers), and, of course, marvelous works for orchestra, or involving orchestra. You might have thought him a natural for opera. Why did he absent himself from this world, largely? I don’t really know. Probably, he was just not a man of the theater.

New York City Opera staged Aleko, along with another short opera, Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci (whose usual partner is Cav, i.e., Cavalleria rusticana, by Mascagni). Aleko was Rachmaninoff’s graduation piece for the Moscow Conservatory. (The year was 1892.) It is not as well-known as a later graduation piece—Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 1 (written in 1925, for the Leningrad Conservatory). But it deserves to be known.

Aleko begins like a typical nineteenth-century Russian opera. It is lushly Romantic. In the course of its journey, it is brash, poignant, and other things. The opera portrays the ardency of young love. It also portrays the emotion of an older man, the title character. Rachmaninoff, the student composer, shows great sympathy for this tormented elder. The music contains some Orientalism, to use an old-fashioned word. It sometimes has an Oriental sheen or wash. There is Gypsy dancing, full of color. I thought of a word: Scheherazade-y. And already, we hear what will become a Rachmaninoff signature, his chromaticism. Or did I imagine that? I should say too, the choral writing is notably good.

Fundamentally, this opera is Russian. Very, deeply Russian. Aleko sings, “Anguish. Grief. Once more I am alone.” Correct me if I’m wrong, but don’t those words appear in every Russian song and opera?

Here is another question, a more serious one: Is Aleko just a curiosity, or should it find a place in the repertory? I can see it paired with a number of short works, in addition to Pagliacci. Both Pag and Cav can date other people. In Riga recently, I noticed that Le villi and Gianni Schicchi were paired. They are both short operas by Puccini. Le villi was his first, and Gianni Schicchi is traditionally Act III of Il trittico.

Readers may have been surprised at my mention of City Opera. The company died a few years ago, did it not? It has been revived, in limited form. One of the great things that the old City Opera did was introduce people to non-standard repertory. I learned a lot of rep from City Opera. The new City Opera is performing the same service.

Is Aleko just a curiosity, or should it find a place in the repertory?

At the New York Philharmonic, a concert began with an oomp: an obligatory opening modern piece. This one was short, in the nature of an oomp: seven minutes long. It was also a good one. It was by John Corigliano, the famed American composer, born in 1938. He is a child of the Philharmonic. His father, also John, was the concertmaster for over twenty years.

John Jr.’s piece is STOMP, for Orchestra. Why does that title have capital letters? I don’t know. Some titles have only small letters. I can’t figure out that one either. Probably, Corigliano, in this title, is trying to signal exuberance. I know where the word comes from: the piece features tapping and stomping, as with your foot, on the floor. It was originally a violin solo, which is to say, a piece for unaccompanied violin. Corigliano wrote it 2010 for the Tchaikovsky Competition in St. Petersburg. Contestants in the semi-final round were assigned it. In 2014, the Houston Symphony asked Corigliano for a new piece. He felt he did not have time for a truly new one, but offered to transcribe his violin solo—which was fine with the Houstonians. Composers often do this, reworking instead of working. (Writers do it too, and so do others.)

Corigliano penned a note about his original piece. He called it “fiddle music,” a mixture of country, bluegrass, and jazz. Thus is the composer true to his roots: his American roots if not his New York roots, specifically.

In the orchestra version, the piece begins with a loud crack, as I recall. More than a few pieces begin this way. Ravel’s G-major piano concerto comes immediately to mind. STOMP has the air of a hoedown. Yet is it bluesy before it is bluegrassy. There is a nice balance between slow and fast. The music is slightly discordant, giving the hoedown a modern edge. Corigliano has done an admirable job with orchestration. He distributes his music among the instruments. The clarinet has a long solo, for example, and other woodwinds have substantial ones. Along the way, I was reminded of Copland: his Rodeo. In slow sections, I was reminded of Bernstein: bluesy Bernstein. All in all, STOMP shows craft and brio, and is a pleasure to hear.

The New York Philharmonic, under Alan Gilbert, played well—yet the pizzicatos were dreadful. They often are, whatever the orchestra or piece. The Philharmonic’s foot stomping was much better—better coordinated, more precise.

At the Metropolitan Opera, we had Tristan und Isolde, the Wagner masterpiece (or one of them). In the pit was Sir Simon Rattle. He is a fine conductor, obviously, but I have long faulted him on a few grounds, including a certain formlessness. Sir Simon can be like a jellyfish, just floating around, not according the music its spine or shape. So it was in the Tristan prelude, I believe. The music was slow and disjointed, with long, unnatural, unmusical pauses. The music was line by line, with too little sense of the whole. Moreover, the orchestra’s entrances were poor. Formlessness plus sloppiness is a bad combination.

Wagner’s music is so great—this prelude is so great—that it can do without action on the stage. It can do without the visual. But, as the prelude played at the Met, a video came on. Through some kind of scope, you saw a ship in a churning sea. There would be such videos throughout the opera. What is the line between visual enhancement and visual distraction? It is in the eye of the beholder, I think.

Wagner’s music is so great that it can do without action on the stage.

But back to Sir Simon and his prelude. I must confess that, before it was over, I was bored out of my skull. I feared that we were in for the longest and dullest Tristan ever performed. But we were not. As Act I unfolded, Sir Simon conducted reasonably, and at his best he was thrilling. Or rather, he brought out the thrill of Wagner’s score.

Singing Isolde was Nina Stemme, the Swedish soprano, who is probably the leading Isolde of our time. She has lived with the role for many years, and has a sure understanding of it. On this night, in Act I, I heard some tremulousness from her that I had never heard before. But generally she was secure. Tristan, the Australian tenor Stuart Skelton, was also secure, and nicely free. Freedom in a Tristan is a rare and gratifying thing. Ekaterina Gubanova, the Russian mezzo, sang very gratifyingly. She was Brangäne, and she was solid, gleaming, and smooth. Also loud, I must say. I believe she was the loudest voice on stage.

The production is overseen by Mariusz Treli?ski, a Polish director. It is an update. There is a modern warship, with all the electronics. In my view, the stage did not look like the story, libretto, and music. The production and the opera did not match. Also, there is some gratuitous violence, which is de rigueur in European productions, and has been imported here. Furthermore, may I say something elementary? In an opera, you should stick singers where you can hear them, not where you can’t. This rule is unfancy, but it is a good one, and too often ignored, as here.

In Act II, the stage is exceptionally bleak, blunt, and ugly. During the love duet, I thought, “Never has such beauty had such ugly surroundings.” As the duet plays out, the director (or someone) has Tristan and Isolde make conversational gestures. It’s a conversation, true. But sometimes it is better to let the characters—brace yourself for a dread phrase—stand and sing.

Stemme’s middle voice was shot, but she acquitted herself honorably. Gubanova, in Brangäne’s warnings, was suddenly hoarse. Skelton continued steady. Maestro Rattle was at his most frustrating, letting the love duet have almost none of its quivering urgency. There was hardly any rapture, hardly any ecstasy. Wagner’s love duet—which should be almost unbearably exciting—was flat as a pancake. Just a wet noodle.

What a welcome sight was René Pape, the German bass, who is the King Mark of our time, and who sang that role on this night. He is still Pape. There is less voice than before, I believe, and Pape stopped phonating a couple of times. That is, his sound ceased to come out. It had to resume. But he was still commanding, and this command very much includes beauty. From him, the King’s monologue sounded like an extended lied.

In this update, Melot wounds Tristan with a gun, not a sword, which is appropriate. I remember a recent Faust at the Met: it was set in the nuclear laboratory at Los Alamos, and yet they still dueled with swords.

Directors are so bored with the standard repertory that they do things to it.

Wagner’s Act III began with some excellent conducting—and some nice growling from the orchestra. The production competed with the music, usually winning. This act, in this production, is weirdly medicalized. Tristan is in a hospital bed, with a little boy scampering about. (He is an invented character, a director’s symbol.) Tristan staggers around, as Isolde will. They look like zombies. Is this The Night of the Living Dead? Isolde is not transported. She does not sink into rapture. She kills herself, by slashing her wrist with a knife. She might as well sing, not the Liebestod, but “Suicidio!” (from Ponchielli’s Gioconda). But Stemme sang the Liebestod, and well. I was too bitter to care.

I have written bitterly, but I think that opera people ought to take more care with opera. They are so bored with the standard repertory that they do things to it. They update it, and change it, so as to make it more interesting to themselves. They tell themselves that they are making opera more “relevant” to the public. If they want to do something really new, I beg them to write their own operas. It’s hard, yes (to write good ones). But people have done it for centuries. Why stop now?

When we left him last season, James Levine, the Met’s veteran maestro, was conducting a Turkish comedy: The Abduction from the Seraglio, by Mozart. He began this new season by conducting another Turkish comedy: The Italian Girl in Algiers, by Rossini. As always now, he received a thunderous ovation. Then he conducted a very poor overture.

It was uncrisp and unsparkling. The players stumbled, making a disconcerting number of mistakes. The music—I could hardly believe my ears—was downright ugly. At the end, Levine had his orchestra stand, but they should have stayed in their seats.

First to sing was Ying Fang, the young Chinese soprano. She was Elvira, and, as usual, she was bright, accurate, and lovely. Making an impression in the little role of Zulma, Elvira’s maid, was Rihab Chaieb, a Tunisian-Canadian mezzo. It will be good to hear more from her.

Doing Mustafà was Ildar Abdrazakov, the Russian bass (or should I say Bashkir bass?). In the early going, he was a little stiff and ungainly. He was also un-Italianate—very. But this mattered little even then. Abdrazakov relished this relishable role, hamming it up. He was a hoot, with his chest hair—comical, copious chest hair (added on, I should note). I thought of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the 9/11 terrorist, when he was first apprehended. His mass murder is not comical—but that photo was.

The evening’s tenor, singing Lindoro, was René Barbera, an American. Man cannot live on Juan Diego Flórez or Lawrence Brownlee alone in these roles. Barbera was more than adequate. He executed passagework neatly. He pushed on his voice, and it was not especially pretty. But there is something to be said for intensity of sound, which he had. He would be helped by more pliancy.

Man cannot live on Juan Diego Flórez or Lawrence Brownlee alone.

For the title role, the Italian Girl, there was an Italian mezzo: Marianna Pizzolato. Let me say that sound isn’t everything. I mean, volume isn’t everything. But it’s not nothing, even in Rossini. From Pizzolato, there was simply too little sound. As for her first aria, “Cruda sorte,” it was slightly formulaic. She did not slay it. But she was perfectly competent in it. In the saucy duet “Ai capricci della sorte,” she was suitably saucy. In everything she did, she was poised. But to return to my complaint about sound: the line “Che muso” simply needs more, in my opinion.

Am I spoiled by Marilyn Horne? Who isn’t?

In the Met orchestra, some individual players did some very good playing. At the harpsichord, supplying continuo, Bryan Wagorn was stylish, and nicely unshy. Levine was at his most Levine-like in Act II, I think, when the Turkish men were hailing Taddeo as “il grande Kaimakan.” But this performance overall was not Levine-like, and not Rossini-like. Too often, it was unsmiling and unfriendly. There is a cult of Levine, and I am a fully paid-up member of it, frankly. You can’t out-Levine me. But this was a night to forget, an aberration.

A word about the work: is there anything more wonderful—more alive, more delightful—than Act I of L’italiana? In my judgment, though, there is a sharp falling off in Act II. (This is a relative matter.) Rossini made a famous statement about his posterity: “I hope to be survived by Act III of Otello, Act II of William Tell—and all of The Barber” (of Seville). I understand. But I would proudly put Act I of L’italiana in that canon.

Finally, a word about these Turkish comedies, these Middle Eastern farces. They are funny, yes. But they are possibly less so in this modern, jihad-stricken age.

Another New York Philharmonic concert began with an oomp, but this one was written some twenty-five years ago, by a world-famous composer: György Ligeti. It was Mysteries of the Macabre, for Trumpet and Orchestra. This novelty of a piece was taken from Ligeti’s novelty of an opera, Le grand macabre. The opera was staged by the Philharmonic in 2010, to critical acclaim.

In the trumpet-and-orchestra piece, the soloist is asked to engage in much shtick: running, talking, shouting—all in addition to playing a difficult trumpet part. To my mind, the piece is like an inside joke. If you get it, you’re giddy. If you don’t . . . maybe not so much.

The soloist was the Philharmonic’s new principal trumpet, Christopher Martin, late of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. His brother, Michael, is a trumpeter in the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In the Ligeti, Christopher Martin showed tremendous skill, and a larky spirit. The piece is like an athletic workout. Martin came through with flying colors. And I trust you will understand when I say this: he made beautiful sounds even when it wasn’t necessary. Even when he could have gotten by with ugly or plain.

On the podium was Alan Gilbert, who was a masterly timekeeper, as he tends to be in modern pieces. That sounds like a putdown: “timekeeper.” It is not. This is an extremely important thing to be, in music like this, and many are not. Tricky modern music is lucky to have an advocate such as Gilbert.

Earlier, I said that man cannot live on Juan Diego Flórez or Lawrence Brownlee alone, when it comes to Rossini tenor roles. Well, man cannot live on the Haydn concerto alone, when it comes to trumpet-and-orchestra pieces. I look forward to hearing Christopher Martin in more repertoire, including the unlarky: including the Haydn.

New to The New Criterion?

Subscribe for one year to receive ten print issues, and gain immediate access to our online archive spanning more than four decades of art and cultural criticism.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 3, on page 45
Copyright © 2023 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com

Popular Right Now