Review: Aleko, Melos Sinfonia***

 The young and blossoming Melos Sinfonia orchestra performs Rachmaninov’s ‘fringe opera’ Aleko at St. John’s Smith Square. Joe Richomme reviews.

 

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Ask someone to name an opera about gypsies and there’ll be no prizes for guessing what pretty much everyone will say; Bizet’s Carmen looms large in that department. But on Monday evening the Melos Sinfonia gave a concert performance of the other Gypsy opera, Rachmaninov’s Aleko.

Aleko is a simpler tale than Carmen, and much shorter (coming in at just over an hour) but it possesses the same backbone; a jilted lover, a jealous rage. There’s no denying, though, that it’s less known than its famous cousin, so that the Melos chose to preface their concert with a talk was a nice touch. A good mix of historic context and more specific musical analysis from Daniel Jaffe gave plenty to think about ahead of the performance.

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And this was a show with many things to recommend it. In particular, the two central performances were extremely strong. James Platt (singing Aleko) is blessed with a magnificent instrument. His was a commanding presence too and brought a suitable gravitas to his role. If he overdid the anger in some of his exchanges with the other characters, his cavatina demonstrated his ability to tone it down – technically solid and thoughtfully sung this was a haunting rendition. Sara-Lian Owen as Zemfira was equally impressive. Possessing enviable control throughout her range, she had an almost throw-away ease in the high passages. Her spirited characterisation was also immediately engaging, an important coup in such a short opera. They were ably supported by a solid performance from Arshak Kuzikyan as Zemfira’s father, but Luperci de Souza’s Young Gypsy was a little thin of tone in the top registers.

There was some nice playing too in the orchestra, especially from the horns. Perhaps they could have done with a little more rehearsal – the sound felt shapeless at times and there were some untidy entries – but for the most part conductor Oliver Zeffman coaxed a solid performance from his players. Joined with the chorus (who made an impressive sound throughout and handled the Russian pronunciation extremely convincingly to my, admittedly unfamiliar, ear) the climaxes were handled with aplomb.

Some other minor niggles kept this from being a fantastic concert: the stage at St. John’s necessitated that the surtitles were placed off to the side, which made it nigh on impossible to keep up with the translation and watch the singers; a slightly skewed balance between orchestra and singers meant that it occasionally felt like the latter were having to fight to be heard. On the whole though, this was an admirable realisation of an ambitious project. Programming like this makes the Melos a stand-out young ensemble and this was a welcome opportunity to hear this early Rachmaninov gem.

Melos Sinfonia’s next performance (Walton’s Façade and Maxwell Davies’ Eight Songs for a Mad King) will be at Grimeborn Opera Festival, 5-10 September. More information here.