Double trouble

Opera - Peter Conrad on a Russian nihilist and an Italian cynic played back to back

Nowadays we graze rather than feast, and opera companies have caught up with our fickle habits by presenting a repertory that resembles a tapas bar or a sushi railway. Earlier this year, Opera North put on a season of paired one-acters including rarities by Rossini and Bizet. Since then, Glyndebourne has spliced together an ingenious double bill that couples Rachmaninov's grim tragedy The Miserly Knight and Puccini's equally gruesome comedy Gianni Schicchi.

Opera never strays far from vice: the works performed by Opera North exemplified the seven deadly sins, and the Glyndebourne diptych - directed with keen psychological insight by Annabel Arden - morbidly anatomises avarice. Rachmaninov's knight starves his son while worshipping a hoard of gold he refuses to spend. Having grubbed riches from the earth, he inters himself with them; his coffers resemble coffins, and his vault is a morgue. He dies unredeemed and unlamented.

Puccini - an Italian cynic, not a Russian nihilist - observes our common venality with amusement and wise acceptance. A greedy patrician clan squabbles over a legacy that has been left to some fat monks. Schicchi, a canny upstart, salvages the funds by faking a new will, and avenges himself on the snobbish aristocrats by awarding himself the dead man's most prized assets.

The knight, croaking, calls for the keys to his strongbox still unaware that you can take nothing with you. But Schicchi, after impersonating the corpse in order to dictate a revised will, bounces back to life and reprieves himself from hell. Exchanging song for speech, he asks the audience whether they wouldn't have done the same. Glyndebourne's assembled plutocrats cheered in approval of his chicanery.

The two operas happen back to back on Vicki Mortimer's set. Rachmaninov's dank, grimy fortress revolves to reveal a sickroom in a decayed Florentine palace where Puccini's characters gather to sob hypocritically over their expiring ancestor. The knight's lair has a subterranean gloom, and its darkness is made audible in the rumblings and volcanic eructations of the orchestra, superbly conducted by Vladimir Jurowski. The piled ingots appear in niches, where they shine like molten honey; then, thanks to Paule Constable's lighting, they freeze, turning into a deathly igloo. In Gianni Schicchi, this stifling chamber is exhilaratingly ventilated. Windows are thrown open, curtains flutter in an afternoon breeze, and the opera ends with a hymn to the Tuscan sunlight, richer than the knight's gold.

Rachmaninov's hero is a monomaniac whose chosen form of expression is monologue: the opera's central scene is a 20-minute soliloquy in which he slavers over his useless assets. The role was written for the grand exhibitionist bass Fyodor Chaliapin, who never sang it. Perhaps he was repelled by the character, who lacks the mad exuberance of most operatic villains. Glyndebourne has cast a lighter-voiced baritone, Sergei Leiferkus, who gives the performance of his career. The sound he makes is icily beautiful and his diction has a chill precision, though he is prepared to sacrifice this finesse when he delivers the knight's feral cries of rage and triumph. He ends his soliloquy on all fours like a scuttling insect: we watch the humanity bleed out of him, and see him metamorphose into a scavenging beast.

Balancing Leiferkus is the ebullient Schicchi of Alessandro Corbelli, a Chaplinesque comedian with a rubbery face and an equally flexible body. The knight's paralytic obsession is replaced by the slippery nimbleness of a man who can argue his way out of any impasse and run faster than his retributive pursuers. Jurowski rejoices in the contrasting tonal worlds of the two pieces, but also finds connections between them: the uproarious ensembles in which the characters quarrel sound as violent as the torturing of Cavaradossi in Tosca.

Pushkin, whose play Rachmaninov adapted, classified The Miserly Knight as a "little tragedy". It is little not just because of its brevity, but because it belittles its protagonist, refusing him the empathy that tragic characters usually evoke. His death provokes disgust, not terror or pity. At Glyndebourne, a small tragedy gives way to a large comedy. Gianni Schicchi is about a gregarious, expansive community, not a solitary misanthrope, and it is animated - in the marching rhythms of the tenor's aria about profiteering and social progress - by the belief that money is the motive force of all human action. The knight's abrupt collapse is not the end after all. Comedy knows how to resurrect the dead, and at the conclusion of Gianni Schicchi, even a corpse takes a bow.

The Rachmaninov/Puccini double bill will be performed at the BBC Proms on 26 August and broadcast on BBC2 in December

This article first appeared in the 23 August 2004 issue of the New Statesman, The warlords of America