Monday, June 20, 2005

Bel Cantanti

Sergei Rachmaninoff's youthful opera "Aleko" had a rare performance Friday at Christ Lutheran Church in Bethesda. The season finale for the energetic, imaginative Bel Cantanti opera company, it was only the third American production of "Aleko," and the show was a revelation to many in the audience.

Rachmaninoff composed "Aleko" as a graduation requirement at the Moscow Conservatory when he was only 19. Though it gives no hint that the composer would become one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century, it shows his melodic skills were already well developed.

For much of its length, before it breaks into a flurry of violent action near the end, the one-act opera is theatrically rather subdued, but it presents well-defined characters and a clear plot. The story is simple: A man (Aleko) has left mainstream society, joined a band of Gypsies and fallen in love with a Gypsy woman, Zemphira. When she takes a young lover, he kills them both.

The music is sometimes reminiscent of Tchaikovsky, but the work it most resembles overall is "Cavalleria Rusticana," with its rustic setting, violent conclusion and even the presence of an intermezzo (beautifully played by pianist and artistic director Katerina Souvorova) before the violence.

Bryan Jackson brings a sonorous, subtly shaded baritone to the role of Aleko. Alice Dillon is an attractive, provocative Zemphira, and Issachah Savage characterizes her young lover with a golden tenor.

Vladimir Ekzarkhov and Michelle T. Rice solidly fill supporting roles and dominate the series of Russian arias and songs that fill out the program after intermission: Ekzarkhov in splendidly presented arias from Borodin's "Prince Igor" and Tchaikovsky's "Iolanta" as well as Glinka's "Midnight Parade" and Mussorgsky's "Song of the Flea"; Rice in an aria from Tchaikovsky's "Pique Dame."

Different songs and arias will be sung in repeat performances June 26 and July 1.

-- Joseph McLellan

National Philharmonic

Ordinarily the acoustic panels suspended above the stage at the Music Center at Strathmore are positioned uniformly, but on Friday the 43 panels were tilted so haphazardly that it looked as though a toddler had toyed with the switches. But it was all part of the National Philharmonic's enlightening evening of music and acoustical demonstrations.

With a heavenward swoop of his arms, Music Director Piotr Gajewski sent the canopy of panels into proper alignment and then proceeded with Steven Gerber's "Fanfare for the Voice of A-M-E-R-I-C-A." The piece is a collection of forgettable motifs, but the orchestra's brass and percussion performed it warmly from the balcony.

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