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.

Acoustician Larry Kirkegaard came onstage to explain some of the hall's auditory mysteries. To demonstrate the dampening effect of the curtains hidden behind the walls and ceiling, he had the brass ensemble play a short fanfare three times. As the curtains grew longer each time, the sound durations grew shorter.

Whittled down to chamber orchestra dimensions, the Philharmonic gave Mozart's Overture to "The Impresario," K. 486, a sweetly dispositioned performance. The hall's drier acoustical settings further miniaturized the ensemble's sound. With more reverberant configurations, however, the hall amplified the orchestral sound in Saint-Saens's Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, Op. 28, featuring violinist Sandra Meei Cameron, 18, who played with incendiary vigor and sensuality.

Strathmore's acoustics reverted to maximized settings for Ravel's "Daphnis et Chloe" Suite No. 2. Restored to its full size, the orchestra, augmented by the National Philharmonic Chorale, unfurled a colorful performance as glorious as a sunrise at sea.

-- Grace Jean

Opera Vivente

Theater, storytelling, puppets and art were scattered everywhere around the gardens and buildings of Marjorie Merriweather Post's magnificent Hillwood home over the weekend, and in the log structure known as the Adirondack building, there was music. The weekend's activities celebrated early 20th-century Russian lively arts, and the music performed by members of the Baltimore chamber opera troupe Opera Vivente consisted of three arias by Rimsky-Korsakov and Stravinsky's rollicking burlesque "Renard," 40 minutes in all (repeated every hour and a half) and a thorough pleasure.

Under the guidance of director John Bowen, Opera Vivente operates on a small scale and works hard to make opera accessible, artistically and financially (it performs everything in English). "Renard," a folk tale of a clever fox and a foolish rooster (and assorted other barnyard critters), is a perfect fit. Scored for four singers, a small instrumental group, and either a group of dancers or acrobats, it is vintage Stravinsky, full of insistent rhythms, energy and wry humor.

For this production, a splendid pianist, JoAnn Kulesza, played the part of the orchestra, and the singers, tenors John Weber and Scott Williamson, baritone Will Heim and bass David Morris, doubled as actors, trading roles and the marvelous headgear of animal faces and tails (or tail feathers) that were the only costumes. The singers made Stravinsky's challenges sound easy and fun. They have big voices, and in the theater's small space, sheer volume swallowed a lot of the words. But the kids in the audience giggled as the barnyard animals took exaggerated revenge on the fox with invisible knives, and the story got a vivid telling.

Williamson, Morris and Heim opened the program with a group of arias from "The Czar's Bride" and "Sadko," convincingly Russian in their sonorities, and in their seriousness and romanticism, a nice contrast to the Stravinsky.

-- Joan Reinthaler

Jerome Hantai,

Kaori Uemura

Even the feeblest musician would find it hard to elicit a crass sound out of the viola da gamba, a delicate baroque string instrument that is held between the knees and bowed like a cello. Yet in the hands of two master musicians, the instrument positively rings with a golden sound tinged with an evanescent glow.

Jerome Hantai from France and Kaori Uemura from Japan drew out superbly clear and multi-hued textures Friday evening at the Corcoran Gallery in a concert sponsored by La Maison Francaise.

Anchoring the program were two works of Francois Couperin. The flowing lines of the 12th Concert for Two Viols came together and moved apart like a dynamically colorful double helix. Hantai explored the upper end of the registers, while Uemura conjured up darker rhythmic figures below. There was a magical sense of chiaroscuro in the 13th Concert for Two Instruments in Unison, as a lighter theme sensitively shaded a descending one.

The musicians traversed more somber and pastoral realms, respectively, in Matthew Locke's Duo for Two Viols and M. de Ste. Colombe's "Concert XLIV: Tombeau 'Les Regrets.' " Nuanced details emerged like flickers of light in John Jenkins's Pavan for Two Viols and Christoph Schaffrath's Duetto in D Minor. Yet it was in the arching "Divisions Upon a Ground" of Christopher Simpson where the duo stirred up a grand sound and brought the music to a feverish, almost orchestral, pitch.

-- Daniel Ginsberg

Sandra Meei Cameron was the soloist in a work by Saint-Saens with the National Philharmonic on Friday at the Music Center at Strathmore.

Jerome Hantai, above, performed works for the viola da gamba with Kaori Uemura, left, at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.