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Recordings

Sergei Rachmaninov: The Miserly Knight
21 Dec 2005

RACHMANINOV: The Miserly Knight

In its 2004 season Glyndebourne put on a double bill celebrating avarice — Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi and the much-lesser known The Miserly Knight.

Sergei Rachmaninov: The Miserly Knight

Sergei Leiferkus, Richard Berkeley-Steele, Maxim Mikhailov, Viacheslav Voynarovskiy, Albert Schagidullin, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski (cond.), Annabel Arden (stage dir.).

Opus Arte OA 0919 D [DVD]

 

Each of these productions has been released separately on DVD; though the operas themselves are less than 70 minutes long, each DVD also features bonus material, including interviews with conductor, director, and stars. Even at less than full price, the 95-minute long The Miserly Knight DVD may not seem like a bargain, but for an outstanding performance of a rare repertory piece, it offers good value indeed.

In the first of three short scenes, all apparently only slightly adapted from the original source material by Rachmaninov, we meet a young knight plagued by debts. A moneylender suggests that he arrange for the murder of his father, a baron (the eponymous character) who hoards his fortune and keeps his profligate son on a tight budget. The young knight refuses, and decides to protest his case to the Duke. The second scene, a long dramatic monologue for the father, has no action whatsoever. Then, in the confrontation before the Duke, the father accuses the son of desiring his death. The son denies it (and is carted away by the Duke’s men in this production), and then the father collapses and dies.

Not exactly a narrative arc of Puccinian drama and characterization. Undoubtedly the challenges of staging the work have contributed to its neglect. Rachmaninov would go on to write one more one-act opera, Francesca di Rimini, and along with the earlier Aleko, all three works reflect his mastery of orchestral texture and drama, and give some evidence of his melodic genius. And yet none really quite makes a case for itself as a total success. Recordings led by Neeme Jarvi of all three have recently been released on the DG “Trio’ series, and they make for fascinating listening.

But seeing The Miserly Knight in this Glyndebourne production, directed by Annabel Arden, makes one wish more opera companies would search out interesting one-act operas to be paired with the more successful ones, as Glyndebourne did by presenting the Rachmaninov with Puccini’s classic. Director Arden has fully bought into the tormented drama of Rachmaninov’s score, and the dark, monochromatic sets effectively partner the excellent acting of the cast.

Arden’s riskiest move, and a brilliant success, involves an "aerialist” (Matilda Leyser), who dangles from ropes and clambers around the multi-level sets. An androgynous figure, with the skin and hair of an old man but the youthful, impish face of a youth, this figure appears briefly at the start and then throughout scene two, managing to enhance the long monologue, so brilliantly delivered by Leiferkus, without distracting from the focus on the knight. A booklet explaining the links between the two productions describes the aerialist as “the spirit of greed, the Baron’s conscience and death itself…” One can experience this supernatural figure on that level, or one can simply revel in the eerie effect created by Leyser’s amazing physical dexterity and truly astounding facial expressions.

Richard Berkeley-Steele, a fairly good Siegmund in the recent Barcelona Ring DVD set, does even better here, sounding comfortable with both the language and tessitura of the role. As the Duke, Albert Schagidullin creates a character in a few short lines, a self-satisfied, cold-hearted ruler who adopts a pose of fairness to cover his own avaricious nature (Arden has him claiming the Baron’s wealth after his death). Viacheslav Voynarovskiy sings with appropriate unctuousness as the Moneylender, a role that in the unexpurgated original apparently veers into anti-Semitic characterization (this according to a recent Gramophone review of a Chandos recording of the opera). Here, he is just one more loathsome figure in a misanthrope’s daydream…or nightmare.

Vladimir Jurowski, clearly relishing both the score and his own youthful, handsome self (those tresses are something else), leads the LPO in a riveting performance.

Glyndebourne by reputation is seldom an easy ticket to acquire, even if one happens to be taking the summer in the UK. To have a new production from last year available on DVD is wonderful in itself, and when it is the quality of this particular one, then generosity can be said to be at the heart of this Miserly Knight.

Chris Mullins
Los Angeles Unified School District, Secondary Literacy

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