Mary Woodward Review

Rachmaninov The Miserly Knight and Stravinsky Mavra, Perth Concert Hall, Review

**** (4 stars)

It was fitting that the evening should begin with a full-blooded and stirring performance of the Ukrainian national anthem.  It was also fitting that Alex Reedijk, general director of Scottish Opera, should remind us not only of the need to send a clear message of solidarity to people in Ukraine, but also to remember that “the ‘fight’ is with the Kremlin and not individual Russians, who are often our neighbours and friends” and emphasising the universality of music, which “transcends national borders in expressions of pain, longing, and belief in a better future.”

Rachmaninov’s The Miserly Knight had an all-male cast, a huge orchestra, and a richly-textured, lush score that contrasted strongly with the niggardly nature of the central character.  Albert is a young knight who’s spent all his money; his father is stingy and grasping.  Solomon the moneylender refuses to lend Albert any more money – what security has he?  His father might outlive his son, and then how would the debt be repaid?  Solomon suggests that Albert might resort to ‘a few little drops of something’ to help his father on his way – but Albert vehemently refuses this course of action, determining instead to appeal to his overlord the Duke’s sense of justice.  

The Baron is gloating over the riches in his secret cellar, anticipating the extreme pleasure he’ll get from adding another small amount of gold to his hoard and revelling in the power he feels the hoard gives him.  To his horror, he realises that when he dies, Albert will be able to squander all his closely-guarded wealth as he pleases.

Albert asks the Duke for justice, and hides to listen while the Duke questions the Baron, who asserts that his son is vicious and undeserving.  Albert bursts out, protesting at these lies.  His father challenges him to a duel and, while the Duke tries to restore peace, prepares to fight: but he collapses and with his dying breath speaks only of the keys to his hoard.

The music began as it meant to go on – stirring, murmuring, complaining, whining – rose to a climax and then grumbled away.  Lyrical melodies interspersed an orchestral score which depicted all the emotions on stage, and could well stand on its own as film music…  Alexey Dolgov was an ardent Albert, fretting at his penury [but disregarding the fact that his extravagance was the root cause] and embarrassed by the contrast between his scruffy appearance and the richly-dressed members of the court.  Alasdair Elliot produced another of his excellent character roles as Solomon – though I was uncomfortable at the stereotypically Jewish persona the score forced him to adopt.  John Molloy made the most of the small role of Ivan, Albert’s servant, and Alexey Gusev was a noble Duke, showing once again why he was a Scottish Opera Emerging Artist a few years ago.  It was a joy to hear Russian sung by Russian-speakers with fabulous voices – and it confirmed that the non-native speakers were doing a pretty good job too.

Once again, Roland Wood shone through as a formidable actor and singer – even more so as he undertook the role at short notice: he was still ‘on the book’ but this didn’t impede his delivery of a staggering tour de force in his secret cellar scene.  Unlike his recent Falstaff, the Baron has no redeeming features – it’s a chilling portrait of a monomaniac who despises the people from whom he wrings money and can’t even allow himself the pleasure of spending his riches, preferring to clutch them to himself and gloat over the power he thinks they give him.   It wouldn’t have been appropriate to applaud when he collapsed at the end of the opera, but I’m sure I wasn’t the only one silently cheering…

Mavra was a deliciously light and frothy contrast – a much smaller orchestra with a cleaner, sharper sound and delightfully witty music, and a mostly female cast.  Parasha and Vassili are in love, but have to meet in secret.  Parasha’s mother is heard lamenting the death of their previous maid – the house is in chaos, nothing gets done, and it’s impossible to find a replacement who will be anything like good enough.  A neighbour turns up and joins the lamenting – the present good weather will vanish: like everything else, our pleasure in it is in God’s hands.  

Parasha decides to get Vassili to apply for the job, in the persona of ‘Mavra’.  Soft-spoken and gently submissive, Mavra is at first a welcome addition to the household.   The lovers are overjoyed to spend time together.  Parasha and her mother go out for a walk, but when the mother slyly returns to check up on her maid, she is astonished to find ‘her’ shaving.  Her cries bring the neighbour and Parasha running back, and they and Mavra watch in horror as she faints…

British-Armenian soprano Anush Hovhannisyan was a lively and engaging Parasha while Sarah Pring’s Mother lamented and spied superbly.  Lea Shaw, recently seen in A Midsummer Night’s Dream made the most of her opportunities as their sprightly and very modern Neighbour.  Star of the show, however, was Alexey Dolgov, making a quick change of character and mood as the love-struck Vassili and a quietly docile and very obliging Mavra.  The score was delightfully OTT, the emotions extreme – lamenting, rejoicing, suspicious, ecstatic – and the comic timing superb: altogether an engaging antidote to the bitterness and spite of the first piece.

I’m really glad I made the effort to go to Perth – this evening was another example of Stuart Stratford’s desire to present little-known works by extremely well-known composers.  Once again Scottish Opera has proved to me that pieces which I approach somewhat reluctantly are thoroughly enjoyable and deserving of a much wider audience.  Those present were warmly appreciative of the singers and audience – I just wish the treat could be more widely shared…  

Many thanks, Stuart, for your continuing efforts to enlarge my horizons: I look forward to the next little-known treat, whatever that may be, while also eagerly awaiting Don Giovanni [with Roland Wood and Lew Shaw among others] – performances will be in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Inverness and Aberdeen this May and June.

Scottish Opera presents Rachmaninov The Miserly Knight and Stravinsky Mavra, Run Ended

Review by, Mary Woodward

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