RACHMANINOV: Aleko (complete opera) – Sergey Murzaev (Aleko)/ Evgeny Akimov (Young Gypsy)/ Gennady Bezzubenkov (Father of Zemfira)/ Svetla Vassileva (Zemfira)/ Nadezhda Vassileva (Old Gypsy Woman)/Coro del Teatro Regio di Torino/ BBC Philharmonic/ Gianandrea Noseda, conductor – Chandos 10583, 50:55 [Distr. by Naxos] *****:

Aleko was written by the teenaged Rachmaninov as a graduation exercise, taking as its premise a text by another young man, 25-year-old Pushkin (called The Gypsies.) It is seen as a bit of homage to Tchaikovsky, who admired its gloomy score when he saw it at the Bolshoi six months before his death. The music is certainly tuneful, evocative, and involving, very Russian and perfectly suited to Pushkin’s tale of tragedy. Though somewhat immature and underdeveloped, Rachmaninov ends up carrying the day because of the sheer variety of invention and an ability to parallel the text in an almost exact-equivalency manner.

The plot, best summarized in the notes with a quote from Pushkin’s biographer T.J. Binyon, is this: “His last ‘southern’ poem, it is set in Moldavia. Aleko, the hero, having fled society, is taken in by the gypsy Zemfira, and is soon performing with a tame bear, singing as it dances, while Zemfira’s father plays a tambourine and Zemfira herself collects money from the audience. They have a child, but Zemfira betrays Aleko with a young gypsy. One night, he surprises the lovers and murders both. The tribe moves off, leaving him alone on the steppe.”

The plot does inspire music in the plot scenario that is redolent of Carmen, but Rachmaninov’s is not as thorough in its emotional impact as Bizet’s. But it is still worthy of frequent inclusion on the stage with the composer’s other one-act operas. Sergey Murzaev is quite solid in the title role, though I am more taken with the tenor of Evgeny Akimov’s Young Gypsy. Svetla Vassileva is very effective as Zemfira, easily steering through Rachmaninov’s intense lyricism, though there is a bit of a Bulgarian wobble in her voice that is not uncommon from sopranos in that region. The other two singers are fine, and the BBC players sound just wonderful in sonics that are carefully managed by the Chandos engineers. Full texts and translations round out a fine production. There are a few other versions available currently, but none sound as good as this one.

— Steven Ritter