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the gypsies

27 february 2021

The Gypsies (1827) is a medium-length narrative poem by Alexander Pushkin that I would not have known about except that Sergei Rachmaninoff adapted it as the opera Aleko in 1892, when he was still a conservatory student.

The Gypsies is on the face of it a yarn about ferocious jealousy and bloody murder in a picturesque Romantic setting. But it evidently had strong personal content for Pushkin. The central character, Aleko, is an exile from the urban elite who has ought refuge among the gypsies. When he wrote the poem, Pushkin was an exile from Tsarist court circles, living in the south of the empire, involved in various liberation movements. The poem dramatizes tensions between scorning and missing the fashionable world, between embracing the freedoms of a gypsy existence and chafing at those same freedoms. One imagines Pushkin felt all those different ways at times while he was far from Moscow.

Quick plot: the gypsies are doing their gypsy thing in their quasi-fantastic world when Aleko, the outcast, seeks refuge among them. He takes up with Zemfira, daughter of a gypsy elder. A couple of years pass, and the couple is unhappy: monogamy doesn't suit Zemfira and at this point nothing at all suits Aleko. He stabs Zemfira and her gypsy lover to death, whereupon the old father pronounces an unusually pacifist judgment on Aleko:

We are savage, and we do not have laws,
But we do not torture, and we do not kill.
We have no need of blood or groans
But to live with a murderer we have no wish.
For Aleko, being exiled from his exile turns out to be the worst fate of all.

Often, in literature, marginal details make a work memorable. Love, exile, revenge, exoticism, all very fine; but the more intriguing things about The Gypsies are a digression about the poet Ovid – like Pushkin exiled by an emperor to the Black Sea – and the descriptions of a dancing bear whose performances constitute one of the gypsies' sources of income.

The 2015 production of Aleko by the Opéra National de Lorraine in Nancy featured a ballet dancer in a bear suit, performing with a troupe of harlequins. Rachmaninoff's opera features an unusually long orchestral passage fairly early in the show, and stage directors, I guess, can either dim the stage then, or populate it with zingarelli and pagliacci. The Nancy dance was inventive enough, with one guy bounding around on spring-loaded stilts and another guy, wearing a skeleton cut out of paper plates, chasing the bear in and out of a parked car.

The production also featured singing. Rachmaninoff and librettist Vladimir Ivanovich Nemirovich-Danchenko adjusted Pushkin's narrative sequence to impose the dramatic unities and keep things to a single act. This is a good idea; another creative team might have swollen the story into a three- or four-act opera, but the concentration is to its benefit. Little time passes in Aleko compared to The Gypsies. Things begin with the old man telling the story of his own luckless marriage long ago and how Zemfira's mother abandoned them. We are already near the end of Aleko's marriage to Zemfira; she is already singing him a taunting song ("Ancient husband, hideous brute, / Burn me and slash me in your ire") that Pushkin introduces halfway through his poem. Zemfira has already taken a tenor as her gypsy lover by the time the opera begins. Things quickly deteriorate.

As in his Francesca da Rimini (1905), Rachmaninoff doesn't seem to put any special spin on the music in Aleko. This is just an impression and may not be technically warrantable, but my sense is that when the music here is supposed to sound amorous, it sounds amorous; when sinister, sinister; when lamenting, lamenting. Not that all opera music has to throw you curveballs all the time. The same complaint has been lodged against Tchaikovsky and Puccini: their opera scores tend to sound like they're supposed to. They match the action rather than set up the internal tensions against it that you get, say, in Verdi or Wagner. Aleko is still a focused and affecting drama – and after all, Rachmaninoff turned 19 while he was writing it.

Pushkin, Alexander. The Gypsies. [Zigani, 1827.] Translator unknown.