BBC Proms reviews

Prom 34: The Miserly Knight / Gianni Schicchi @ Royal Albert Hall, London

26 August 2004

An empty auditorium at the Royal Albert Hall

An empty auditorium at the Royal Albert Hall (Photo: Christie Goodwin/Royal Albert Hall)

Glyndebourne Festival Opera’s annual visit to the Proms is usually a great event. Their programming and casting are mostly exemplary, the productions are well prepared as they have been performed for nearly two months at Glyndebourne before reaching the Proms, and the operas are always semi-staged and in costume (unusual for the Proms). This year was no exception. The company’s music director, Vladimir Jurowski, had put together a mouth-watering double bill of one-act operas by Rachmaninov and Puccini.

Of Rachmaninov’s three operas, The Miserly Knight, which opened the show, is perhaps the greatest. Consisting of just three scenes and lasting only an hour, it is the intense psychological study of an ageing knight who frustrates his son by depriving him of an allowance and accusing him behind his back of trying to murder him. In the opera’s closing moments the knight dies, realising to his horror that there is no way of depriving his son of the money now.

In the title role, the Russian baritone Sergei Leiferkus offered just as commanding a performance as in his recent Covent Garden Boris Godunov and Lohengrin. Indeed, his was the outstanding performance of the evening. Entering from the back of the Albert Hall and making his way slowly through the prommers’ area during the lengthy introduction to his Scene 2 monologue, Leiferkus inhabited the role completely, making sense of both the words and the way the composer had set them.

As his son, Richard Berkeley-Steele was too thin-toned to be convincing in this Russian romantic-period score, but he was dramatically committed. Albert Schagidullin as the Duke was superbly persuasive in his attempt to persuade his cousin, the knight, to give money to his son, and Viacheslav Voynarovskiy as Salomon and Maxim Mikhailov as the Servant offered able support.

After the interval we were offered a tremendous performance of Puccini’s comedy Gianni Schicchi, an unjustly neglected score. Again, money is the root of the story, which concerns the attempts of a family to change the will of their kinsman when he has just died. They are in despair on learning that old Signor Buoso has left the money to the local monastery – wastefully, they say, as it will merely cause the monks to grow fat. The title character, a peasant whose daughter Lauretta wants to marry into the family, offers to masquerade as the dead man whilst the notary is called in to write a new will. However, Schicchi deceives the family by making himself the main beneficiary, which allows his daughter sufficient wealth to marry the man she loves.

Alessandro Corbelli was as marvellous as ever in the title role. His performance was a musical and comic treat, a true loveable rogue. His performances in Donizetti’s Don Pasquale and Rossini’s Il turco in Italia for the Royal Opera later this year should not be missed. This was, however, an ensemble cast, with convincing performances from nearly all concerned, especially Felicity Palmer as Zita and Massimo Giordano as the young tenor character Rinuccio. Sally Matthews gave the only disappointing performance of the only recognisable part of the score, the soprano aria O mio babbino caro. However, this was a momentary blot on an otherwise idyllic landscape.

The London Philharmonic was in scintillating form in both pieces, both of whose composers utilised the full dramatic potential of the orchestra.

A shame that this was the final performance of the double bill this year, but rumour has it that it will return in the future – let’s hope so.

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Prom 34: The Miserly Knight / Gianni Schicchi @ Royal Albert Hall, London