Rachmaninov’s The Miserly Knight is a very strange one act opera and it isn’t often performed. A production by as cerebral a creative team as Vladimir Jurowski and Annabel Arden looks like a very promising idea so I was very intrigued to see what they made of it in this 2004 Glyndebourne recording.
This work lasts only a little over an hour and is split into three scenes which scarcely relate to each other. In Scene 1 a young knight laments that he can’t keep up his social position on his meagre allowance. A Jewish moneylender refuses to extend further credit but suggests that he can provide the knight with poison if he wants to do his old man in. The knight refuses. Act 2 consists of a monologue in which the father, the Miserly Knight of the title, rhapsodizes over his six chests of gold in a fairly overtly sexual way for twenty five minutes. In Scene 3 the Duke orders the father to make an appropriate allowance to his son. The father refuses ultimately claiming, ironically, that his son is trying to poison him. The son rushes in and denounces his father. They have a row and the father drops dead. End of story. All this takes place to an incredibly complex score full of leitmotivs. In a real sense the orchestra is the main character, functioning as Chorus in the original Greek sense. How to bring some sense of the dramatic to this is no mean problem. Arden’s solution is to embody Greed in the form of an aerialist who is present whenever the father is present. This seems like a great idea and on the odd occasion the video director lets the DVD audience see the interaction between Greed and the father it seems to work. Unfortunately the video director, Franceska Kemp, is even more wedded than most of her ilk to superfluous close-ups and so most of Arden’s intelligent work is lost on us.
Musically this is pretty impressive. The music is not typical Rachmaninov. There are no big tunes and it looks forward to the musical language of early Schoenberg or Bartok as much as it looks back to Wagner and Tchaikovsky. In other words it’s an uncompromising early 20th century score. Jurowski gets this and conjures up superbly detailed and incisive playing playing from the London Philharmonic. He’s backed up by an excellent cast of singing actors. The star, clearly, is Sergei Leiferkus as the father. He manages a part that is usually cast for a bass but goes uncomfortably high for most basses. He can sing the music and he brings an absolutely revolting quality to his quasi sexual monologue about money and power. He’s amazing. The rest of the cast are more than adequate. I particularly liked Albert Schagidullin’s powerful baritone as the Duke. Richard Berkeley-Steele, Maxim Mikhailov and Vyacheslav Voynarovsky are solid as the young knight, the servant and the moneylender. Matilda Leyser is the aerialist portraying Greed. What little we see of her is impressive but I really would like to see much more.
Video direction aside this is pretty impressive as a DVD package. The DTS 5.1 soundtrack is superb (LPCM stereo also available). The picture is also excellent. There are French, German, English, Italian and Spanish subtitles. The extras on the disk include very useful interviews with Jurowski, Arden and Leiferkus as well as a quick look at the Gianni Schicchi with which it was paired at Glyndebourne. The documentation also includes a couple of essays that are worth reading. There’s also a Blu-ray release that includes both The Miserly Knight and Gianni Schicchi.
This is the only currently available video recording of The Miserly Knight so I think it’s worth a look despite the dreadful video direction. If that had been done properly I think this would likely have been really impressive.