Concert performances of operas are often merely static shadows of fully-staged performances, but this double-bill by the Mariinsky Opera was a revelation.
For a start, it was encouraging to see the principal singers file on to the front of a stage free of the usual music stands that constricted them to fixed positions. Further, the fact that they were not burdened with scores showed that they really knew their roles and would give us something extraordinary.
This they certainly did. Neither Rachmaninov's Aleko nor Prokofiev's Semyon Kotko are in the top flight of the composers' works. But on Sunday night's hearing, they deserve more than the neglect or scorn they have suffered.
Aleko, set as a graduation task for the 19-year-old composer with a libretto based on a Pushkin poem, was dashed off in three weeks. It was premiered at the Bolshoi in Moscow in 1893 and in St Petersburg four years later with Chaliapin in the title role. Outside Russia there have been few performances, almost exclusively by amateur or student groups.
In Britain, there was a student production in the 1920s and there are reports of recent US stagings in Seattle.
The plot is simple: Aleko, an idealistic city man seeking a simple life, lives in a Gypsy camp with his Gypsy lover Zemfira. She falls in love with a young Gypsy, taunts Aleko, who discovers the pair together, stabs the man, then Zemfira. The Gypsies refuse to punish Aleko, but cast him out and the opera ends with him bemoaning his loneliness.
As Zemfira, Irina Mataeva was matchless in both singing and expression - worried when she confesses her fears to her father, defiant when taunting Aleko, tender with her Gypsy lover, and bitterly accusatory after his murder.
As Aleko, Yevgeny Nikitin portrayed emotion with actions as well as singing. At times, this detracted from his vocal output but his lengthy cavatina, "The whole camp sleeps," was the high point of the performance. And his closing line, "Again I am alone" voiced utter despair.
Semyon Kotko was much more ambitious and more powerful in its performance. Written by Prokofiev to demonstrate his political probity to the Soviet cultural authorities after living abroad for some years, the five-act opus eschewed traditional operatic styling, dispensing with arias for a more narrative style.
This first attempt at "socialist realism" failed in its purpose to a certain extent. Denigrated at home for "formalism," it was decried abroad as "nationalistic." The premiere in 1940 came at a difficult time and the opera was probably part cause of Prokofiev's continuing troubles with the regime.
The action centres on a Ukrainian village in 1918, beset by occupying German troops and marauding anti-Bolshevik Haydamaks. Semyon, a soldier returning to his home village with marriage in mind, is on the Bolshevik side and the fourteen scenes of this fast-moving third act encompass love, treachery, executions, German reprisals, houses ablaze and grief-induced madness.
Gergiev, newly returned from a somewhat similar regional conflict, drew a surprising power from the Mariinksy Orchestra. Eight principal soloists (and a handful of singers with smaller parts) created an electrifying atmosphere.
It is difficult to single out individual merit when excellence is overall. Much of the libretto could be described as staccato one-liners but the cumulative effect was compelling.
In many ways, the female parts were the most outstanding - and the most demanding. It was a tour de force for Irina Mataeva in her second major role of the evening as Sofya, Semyon's beloved.
Irina Loskutova - Lyuba, fiancée of Tsaryov, one of the two Bolsheviks hanged by the Haydamaks - was harrowing in her mad cries of grief before his dangling corpse. Stormy prolonged applause after the final women's chorus left no doubt about audience appreciation.
Concert: Aug 24 at 20:00
C: Iain Gilmour August 2008