This was an evening at once fascinating and strange. In just his third programme as principal conductor, Vasily Petrenko directed the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra in a double bill of Russian rarities.
Neither work could be called entertaining; one is grimly picaresque, the other deals with the trials and tribulations of a Jewish coffin-maker. But both were presented with remarkable theatrical effect by the RLPO and a team of highly committed singers from the European Opera Centre, now also based in Liverpool.
In two convincing semi-stagings, creatively directed by Elena Tzavara, The Gamblers by Shostakovich was followed by Rothschild's Violin by his pupil Veniamin Fleishman. The centenary may be Shostakovich's, but the evening was Fleishman's. Killed in service early in the siege of Leningrad, Fleishman's one-act opera on Chekhov's haunting story was left unfinished.
When he's not mentally measuring up anyone he can imagine, even his wife, for a coffin, the central character, Yakov Ivanov (a robust portrayal by Jacek Janiszewski), plays the violin. He's a combative chap who comes to regret the way he's lived - and his cruel treatment of Rothschild, another fiddler - through the power of music. His wife (Elena Gabouri) does her best to cheer him up, but perhaps the memory of their dead daughter isn't the best way to lighten the atmosphere. It did, however, give the composer (and Shostakovich, who finished the work) the opportunity for some haunting, lyrical music in a score filtered through with echoes of bitter-sweet Jewish wedding and other traditional tunes.
In The Gamblers, Shostakovich experimented with setting every word of Gogol's play to music, but soon admitted defeat. The unfinished work provided decent material for the EOC's line-up of strongly-characterised male voices, but the lack of female vocal parts made it all seem darkly monochrome in colour.
The singers acted out their padded tummies for all they were worth, trying to point up what little humour surfaces in the tale of cardsharps. The programme described The Gamblers as "an uproarious comic opera", but that was one call that didn't pay off.