Perhaps only those with an unusually detailed knowledge of Soviet-era music will today remember the unfinished opera Rothschild’s Violin by Veniamin Iosifovich Fleischmann (1913–41) – a work perhaps most famous for being completed by Shostakovich after his erstwhile student was killed at the front. Oxford-based composer Marco Galvani knew of Fleischmann’s treatment of the Chekhov short story, but says he deliberately abstained from listening to it when preparing his hour-long chamber opera, a new setting of the story, which received its first performances on 11 and 12 February in the antechapel of New College.
Galvani is a final-year undergraduate at The Queen’s College, studying composition with Robert Saxton. Like Fleischmann, he fashioned his own libretto, charting the redemption of the money-obsessed, Jew-hating coffin-maker Yakov through the last days of his wife’s life, and the late-dawning realisation of the redemptive power of music. Faced ultimately with his own mortality, he hands over his treasured violin to his tormenter, the Jewish Rothschild. Designed specifically for the resonance of the antechapel’s stone surroundings, the opera fields a four-strong cast, accompanied by an ensemble of nine players, marshalled with authority by musical director James Orrell. Director Michael Burden’s mise en scène for New Chamber Opera consisted only of two refectory chairs on foot-high plinths. Even the health-and-safety shielding of New College’s treasured Epstein statue of Lazarus contributed to the bleakness of the imagined rural Russian setting.
Those who fear for the current direction of contemporary opera might be reassured by Rothschild’s Violin. Galvani’s harmonic language is modernist, to be sure, but with an acute ear for sonority that puts one in mind, perhaps, of a figure such as George Benjamin. The austere sound-world of the work’s opening gives way to a string chorale of mesmerising beauty as Yakov’s redemption builds momentum. And the percussive and sustained timbres of piano and gongs play a major part in creating the opera’s distinctive atmosphere.
Yakov is onstage virtually throughout, and the role was created with unwavering assurance in a tour de force performance by baritone Salvador Mascarenhas. He was needled and provoked by the bright tenor of Matthew Thomson as Rothschild, while mezzo Lila Chrisp brought feminine contrast to the tale as Yakov’s ailing wife Martha. (It’s one of opera’s many delightful paradoxes that the sick and dying sing to their graves in full voice.) Baritone Robert Holbrook provided a touch of sinister comic relief as the Doctor whose bedside manner could be worked on a little.
In these days when premières so often double as dernières for want of a deuxième, it was gratifying afterwards to pick up murmurings of a possible tour of the work in the future. Galvani’s Rothschild’s Violin is more than a worthwhile candidate for further exploration, and urgent notice of a compositional voice of genuine promise.