Aleko (Rachmaninoff)

Aleko (Russian: Алеко) is the first of three completed operas by Sergei Rachmaninoff. The Russian libretto was written by Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko and is an adaptation of the poem The Gypsies by Alexander Pushkin. The opera was written in 1892 as a graduation work at the Moscow Conservatory, and it won the highest prizes from the conservatory judges that year. It was first performed in Moscow 19 May 1892.

Performance history

The Bolshoi Theatre's premiere took place on 9 May (O.S. 27 April) 1893 in Moscow.

The composer conducted another performance in Kiev on 18/30 October 1893. (Tchaikovsky had attended the Moscow premiere of Aleko, and Rachmaninoff had intended to hear the premiere of Tchaikovsky's Pathétique Symphony on 16/28 October, but had to catch a train for Kiev to fulfill his Aleko conducting engagement.[1]) A Pushkin centenary celebration performance on 27 May 1899 at the Tauride Palace in Saint Petersburg featured Feodor Chaliapin in the title role, and utilized the chorus and ballet of the Mariinsky Theatre.

The opera had its first performance in England on 15 July 1915 at the London Opera House under the direction of Vladimir Rosing.[2]

The New York City Opera's 2016/17 season opened in Jazz at Lincoln Center's Rose Hall with a double bill of Aleko and Pagliacci, an opera that also premiered in May 1892. James Meena conducted and Stefan Szkafarowsky sang the title role.[3]


Role Voice type Moscow premiere cast
9 May 1893
(Conductor: Ippolit Al'tani)
Kiev premiere cast
18 October 1893
(Conductor: Rachmaninoff)
St. Petersburg premiere cast
27 May 1899
(Conductor: Rachmaninoff)
Aleko baritone Bogomir Korsov Alexandr Bobrov Feodor Chaliapin
Young Gypsy tenor Lev Klementyev Alexey Borisenko Ivan Yershov
Zemfira soprano Mariya Deysha-Sionitskaya Vera Eigen Mariya Deysha-Sionitskaya
An old man, Zemfira's father bass Stepan Vlasov Levitsky Yalmar Frey
Gypsy woman contralto Yelizaveta Shubina Alla Tomskaya
Chorus, silent roles: Gypsies


A band of gypsies has pitched its tents for the night on the bank of a river. Beneath a pale moon, they light campfires, prepare a meal and sing of the freedom of their nomadic existence. An old gypsy tells a story. Long ago, he loved Mariula who deserted him for another man, leaving behind Zemfira, their daughter. Zemfira is now grown up, has her own child, and lives with Aleko, a Russian who has abandoned civilisation for the gypsy life. Hearing this story, Aleko is outraged that Zemfira's father took no revenge on Mariula. But Zemfira disagrees. For her, as for her mother, love is free, and she herself has already tired of Aleko's possessiveness and now loves a younger gypsy, one of her own people. After dances for the women and the men, the gypsies settle down to sleep. Zemfira appears with her young lover, whom she kisses passionately before disappearing into her own tent to look after her child. Aleko enters and Zemfira taunts him, singing about her wild lover. Alone, Aleko broods on the catastrophe of his relationship with Zemfira and the failure of his attempt to flee the ordinary world. As dawn comes, he surprises Zemfira and her lover together. In a torment of jealousy he kills them both. All the gypsies gather, disturbed by the noise. Led by Zemfira's father, they spare Aleko's life but cast him out from them forever.

Principal arias and numbers

Critical reception

Like Rachmaninov's two other operas, Aleko shows Rachmaninov finding his own individual style, independent of the traditional number opera or Wagner's music-dramas. Michael Bukinik, a contemporary of Rachmaninov at the conservatory, recalled the rehearsals for the opera:

I was a pupil of the orchestra class, and during the rehearsals, we not only admired, but were made happy and proud by his daring harmonies, and were ready to see in him a reformer.[4]

Geoffrey Norris has noted criticism of the opera as lacking in dramatic momentum and the libretto as being a hastily crafted "hotchpotch". A contemporary critic in the Moskovskiye vedomosti wrote of the opera at the time of the premiere:

Of course there are faults, but they are far outweighed by merits, which lead one to expect much from this young composer in the future.[5]


Notable excerpts


  1. Talk Classical
  2. Williams, Gordon. British Theatre in The Great War: a revaluation, p. 273,. New York: Continuum (2003).
  3. "New York City Opera to Open Season with Aleko & Pagliacci Double Bill", Opera News Desk,, 12 August 2016
  4. Yasser, Joseph, "Progressive Tendencies in Rachmaninoff's Music" (Winter, 1951/1952). Tempo (New Ser.), 22: pp. 11–25.
  5. Norris, Geoffrey (July 1973). "Rakhmaninov's Student Opera". The Musical Quarterly. 59 (3): 441–448. doi:10.1093/mq/LIX.3.441.
  6. Quraishi, Ibrahim (1997). "Aleko. Sergei Rachmaninov". The Opera Quarterly. 13 (4): 201–204. doi:10.1093/oq/13.4.201. Retrieved 2007-07-22.
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