Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Can we talk about Tatyana instead?

So, Eugene Onegin, that glorious lush Russian opera full of dance music and angst and love and death. It also starred a great cast singing beautifully and acting up a storm...

And yet, I was not happy. Mainly because the production of Kaspar Holten worked against the story, adding extra elements that worked against the story, to create the idea that the story was all about the memories we carry, not that it was just the sad tale of young lovers who make bad choices, then live to regret them.

It is also fair to say, that when he planned the production for the Royal Opera (it is a co production with Covent Garden and Teatro Reggio, Turino), that he expected much older leads, which could make the young lovers/old lovers thing work, but when you have a singer in the (old) role who is probably the same age as the young dancer doubling her, it becomes both confusing and distracting. "Is that Young Tatyana, or is it Old? Oh, she is singing, its the Old one." is the sort of thing that would go through the heads of the audience, assuming of course they had read the information beforehand, and knew this was happening, and did not just think there was a mute sister who danced (at one point I was asked "Is she meant to be miscarrying?", which would make for a very different Letter Scene!!!)

Also, it took a while, but eventually, I got the point of why everything got left on stage and never cleared, the books, the letters, the tree, the snow, dead Lensky, the broken chair, etc. It was to highlight that these people are carrying their history with them, as surely as if it was packed in a backpack and permanently attached to their backs. Well, we get that, it is constantly reinforced in the story and in the music; that the awkward mistakes that these characters make and must live with, are what has caused the traumatic ending for them. Doomed to love each other, but unable to do anything about it, because of the decisions they made in the past, that lead to this point.

But, we do not need to have that drummed into us, it is there in the story and the words, and the music, for all to see. Leaving all these reminders is just awkward, and does not help the story. Having Tatyana come close to falling on dead Lenksy is not going to make things believable, nor is she catching her dress on the branch left behind, as she tries to turn and walk angrily away from Onegin while inside her palace!

So, yes, there was lots about this performance that I did not like.  And most of those related to the work of Kaspar Holten, whose work I have seen before on DVD and found awkward. On the other hand, there was also much to admire. There were no weak performers in the cast, and lots to admire. I have to say, most of that flowed from the high musical standards, held together with precision and fire by Guillaume Tournaire. This is the second time I have attended OperaAustralia this year, and the second time I have found myself in awe of their musical standard.

First of all, if this is not the role that marks Nicole Car as a star, then, I would be curious what would. She inhabits this role as if born to it. Her sweet lyrical voice rose to the occasion beautifully, never feeling underpowered, and sounding every bit the dreamy, yet innocent girl who she portrayed. Considering her age, I was surprised to hear she was cast in this, but having heard her, I could not imagine another local singer come even close to her in this role.

As her would be suitor Onegin, we had the Slovak Baritone Dalibor Jenis in his first season here. He sounds strong and powerful, but I found his soft notes a bit off. An off night? Problems with Russian? I can't say, but it affected the way I viewed his performance. I thought he seemed to be portraying Onegin as a heartless bully and very abrupt, until I realised, it was actually his voice I was reacting to, not his acting. Once I realised that, I could see a much more nuanced performance, just one with a vocal challenge.

As Tatyana's sister, we had Sian Pendry, released from the realms of pants roles, and freed to play a very girly girl, one not yet ready to settle down with the ardent Lensky, and more than eager to flirt back with Onegin, setting up the duel that is in many ways the centre of the piece. Her early scenes with Tatyana showed beautifully matched voices, setting the tone for the opera well.

As Lensky, James Egglestone was ardent and hot headed as we expect. His argument with Onegin at the party was quite physical, and believable. His voice is a bit darker than expected in this role, and his Kuda kuda, was beautifully sung, but not quite the meltingly lovely tone that we hope for in this role. The fact that he then got killed at the front of the stage and remained there till the end of the opera, deserves special praise for being dead so effectively, though why it was thought needed is another question.

Also worthy of mention were the glorious cameo arias of both Kaneen Breen as Triquet (hilarious) and Konstantin Gorny as Prince Gremin, bringing a cultured authority to his part, though why he had to appear briefly to witness the big scene between Onegin and Tatyana was beyond me. It was not needed, and just drew focus away from the fine anguished and passionate performances we were riveted by.

So, to sum up, this is not an Onegin to go see if you do not know the story. This is also not a production to see if you get annoyed by directors who play with stories to suit their pet ideas. I admit, I left both annoyed by what I had seen, yet blown over by the performances.

However, it is a production to go hear if you love this music. That was very well served by all, and has been haunting me for days since. I can think of no better praise for a performer, than that they served the music as well as this cast.

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