A Look At Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Long-Forgotten Operas

By David Salazar

Sergei Rachmaninoff’s claim to fame is the piano. His virtuosic ability as a performer was always admired, but his piano concertos are the legacy that keeps on giving. Today, his second and third piano concertos are fixtures of the instrument’s repertoire and have been for the past century.

But Rachmaninoff was also a composer of other works, including several orchestral gems and, of course, many operas.

Of his stage works “Aleko” is perhaps the best known and gets the occasional performance. The New York City Opera showcased it as part of a double-bill this past fall with “Pagliacci.” Like that opera, this one features the story of a possessive lover who murders his lover.

The opera, which was first performed in 1892, was actually a graduation work at the Moscow Conservatory and won a number of prizes. The Bolshoi Theatre promptly performed it a year later.

Despite its relative obscurity, the opera does have a few famed numbers, mainly Aleko’s cavatina which gets performed by baritones every so often. It also has an extensive recording legacy with such artists as Sergei Leiferkus and Maria Guleghina recording the work.

But his other operas are even rarer.

Rachmaninoff’s “Francesca da Rimini” was written by Modest Ilyich Tchaikovsky and was based on the famed tale from Dante’s Inferno. It was premiered on Jan. 24, 1906 in a double bill with another Rachmaninoff opera, “The Miserly Knight.” “Francesa da Rimini” has also received a number of recordings, including one featuring Leiferkus, Guleghina and Sergei Larin.

As for “The Miserly Night,” it has found life more difficult than either of the aforementioned works. Its depiction of the moneylender has often been criticized as anti-Semitic.

The three operas were recently released on DVD as the “Troika.”

Aside from these three works, Rachmaninoff left a few projects unfinished. The first of these was “Monna Vanna” for which he completed the first Act in a short vocal score. Unfortunately, he lost the rights to the remainder of the play on which it was based and abandoned the work. It wasn’t until the late 1900s that the composer’s sister-in-law Sophie Satin approved an orchestration of the first act, which was given a world premiere in New York with Tatiana Troyanos, Sherrill Milnes and John Alexander alongside the Philadelphia Orchestra.

As for “Salammbô,” that work was only a conception, as proven in a letter he wrote to his friend Nikita Morozoff from 1906. In that letter, the composer gave a scene-by-scene outline of his idea, but he ultimately never found a suitable librettist.


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