Everything you need to know about Rachmaninov’s passionate first opera in one place – right here!

What is the story?

The opera is based on the 1827 poem The Gypsies by Russian poet Alexander Pushkin.

The story centres on Aleko, a man with a turbulent past and a deeply ingrained sense of honour, who joins a free-living bohemian community. He and a young woman from the community, Zemfira, fall in love. But when her father tells a story about how Zemfira’s mother left him for another man, Aleko is enraged. Zemfira disagrees. For her, love should be free.

Frustrated with Aleko’s increasingly possessive attitude, she becomes drawn to a younger man, one of her own people, causing Aleko to spiral out of control… How far will his jealousy drive him?

Read full synopsis

Andrés Presno as Lover and Elin Pritchard as Zemfira in rehearsal © Tom Arber

Who are the characters?

Aleko — an older man, married to Zemfira (baritone)
Zemfira — his younger wife (soprano)
A lover (tenor)
Zemfira’s father (bass)
A woman (mezzo-soprano)

Elin Pritchard as Zemfira in Aleko © Tristram Kenton

What is this production like?

This new Aleko from director Karolina Sofulak is staged as a spin-off of Cavalleria rusticana, the first half of the double bill. Years later, Alfio from Mascagni’s opera has become Aleko in Rachmaninov’s.

At the opening of the piece, we see young Zemfira meet the lost, desperate Aleko and rescue him with her love. The bohemian community he joins is, in this staging, inspired by both Christiania (a free-living commune in Copenhagen with its own laws) and similar communities in California.

The space is vibrant and colourful (Zemfira’s Young Lover is a painter who paints the bright walls of the bar), and multiple giant light-fittings hang from the ceiling…

The Chorus of Opera North in rehearsal for Aleko © Tom Arber

What is the music like?

Rachmaninov’s score for Aleko is powerful and passionate, using a full chorus and large orchestra.

Structurally, there are parallels with Cavalleria rusticana — for example, there’s a lyrical orchestral intermezzo right before the murderous finale.

Aleko’s Cavatina’ is “the heart and soul of the piece” (director Karolina Sofulak). As everyone else sleeps, Aleko remembers the beginning of his relationship with Zemfira, and wonders where it all went wrong. This hugely emotional aria has moments of stillness, tenderness, yearning and descends into grief…

Who was the composer?

Aleko was written by Russian composer, conductor and virtuoso pianist Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943). It was his first opera (he only completed three in his life), written at the age of just 19!

Rachmaninov is usually best known for his rapturous symphonies and piano concertos. His second and third piano concertos are some of the most popular in the whole repertoire — the famous tune from Piano Concerto no. 2 was even used in iconic power ballad ‘All By Myself’!

Sergei Rachmaninov

Did you know?

— Rachmaninov wrote Aleko in 1892 as a graduation work when studying at the Moscow Conservatory, and it won the highest prizes from the judges that year.

— The premiere in 1893 was attended by celebrated Russian composer Tchaikovsky who really liked the piece, helped Rachmaninov get a publisher, and even suggested Aleko would make a good double bill with his own short opera Iolanta.

— This is the first time Opera North has performed Aleko and only our second staging of a Rachmaninov opera (the first was his Francesca da Rimini back in 2004).

Aleko is sung in Russian (with English titles) and lasts approximately 1 hour, following Cavalleria rusticana.

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