08 Feb 2009
Eugene Onegin at the MET
Pushkin’s poem Eugene Onegin is the first of the great line of Russian novels, passionately loved by all the literate of that most literary nation.
A fixation on death at San Francisco Opera. A 337 year-old woman gave it all up just now after only six years since she last gave it all up on the War Memorial stage.
Penny Woolcock's 2010 production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers returned to English National Opera (ENO) for its second revival on 19 October 2018. Designed by Dick Bird (sets) and Kevin Pollard (costumes) the production remains as spectacular as ever, and ENO fielded a promising young cast with Claudia Boyle as Leila, Robert McPherson as Nadir and Jacques Imbrailo as Zurga, plus James Creswell as Nourabad, conducted by Roland Böer.
Francesco Cavalli’s La Calisto was the composer’s ﬁfteenth opera, and the ninth to a libretto by Giovanni Faustini (1615-1651). First performed at the Teatro Sant’Apollinaire in Venice on 28th November 1651, the opera by might have been sub-titled ‘Gods Behaving Badly’, so debauched are the deities’ dalliances and deviations, so egotistical their deceptions.
At the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus delivers a speech which returns to the play’s central themes: illusion, art and the creative imagination. The sceptical king dismisses ‘The poet’s vision - his ‘eye, in a fine frenzy rolling’ - which ‘gives to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name’; such art, and theatre, is a psychological deception brought about by an excessive, uncontrolled imagination.
Following the success of previous ‘mini-festivals’ at St John’s Smith Square devoted to Schubert and Schumann, last weekend pianist Anna Tilbrook curated a three-day exploration of the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams and his contemporaries. The music performed in these six concerts was chosen to reflect the changing contexts in which it was composed and to reveal the vast changes in society, politics and culture which occurred during Vaughan Williams’ long life-time (1872-1958) and which shaped his life and creative output.
Trying to work around Manon Lescaut’s episodic structure, this new production presents the plot as the dying protagonist’s feverish hallucinations. The result is a frosty retelling of what is arguably Puccini’s most hot-blooded opera. Musically, the performance also left much to be desired.
It is Herodotus who tells us that when Xerxes was marching through Asia to invade Greece, he passed through the town of Kallatebos and saw by the roadside a magnificent plane-tree which, struck by its great beauty, he adorned with golden ornaments, and ordered that a man should remain beside the tree as its eternal guardian.
Poor Puccini. He is far too often treated as a ‘box-office hit’ by our ‘major’ opera houses, at least in Anglophone countries. For so consummate a musical dramatist, that is something beyond a pity. Here in London, one is far better advised to go to Holland Park for interesting, intelligent productions, although ENO’s offerings have often had something to be said for them.
With only four singers and a short-story-like plot Don Pasquale is an ideal chamber opera. That chamber just now was the 3200 seat War Memorial Opera House where this not always charming opera buffa is an infrequent visitor (post WWII twice in the 1980’s after twice in the 40’s).
“Yang sementara tak akan menahan bintang hilang di bimasakti; Yang bergetar akan terhapus.” (“The transient cannot hold on to stars lost in the Milky Way; that which quivers will be erased.”) As soprano Tony Arnold sang these words of Tony Prabowo’s chamber opera Pastoral, with astonishingly crisp Indonesian diction, the first night of the second annual Momenta Festival approached its end.
Some operas seemed designed and destined to raise questions and debates - sometimes unanswerable and irresolvable, and often contentious. Termed a dramma giocoso, Mozart’s Don Giovanni has, historically, trodden a movable line between seria and buffa.
Péter Eötvös’ The Sirens Cycle received its world premiere at the Wigmore Hall, London, on Saturday night with Piia Komsi and the Calder Quartet. An exceptionally interesting new work, which even on first hearing intrigues: imagine studying the score! For The Sirens Cycle is elegantly structured, so intricate and so complex that it will no doubt reveal even greater riches the more familiar it becomes. It works so well because it combines the breadth of vision of an opera, yet is as concise as a chamber miniature. It's exquisite, and could take its place as one of Eötvös's finest works.
New from Oehms Classics, Walter Braunfels Orchestral Songs Vol 1. Luxury singers - Valentina Farcas, Klaus Florian Vogt and Michael Volle, with the Staatskapelle Weimar, conducted by Hansjörg Albrecht.
Manitoba Underground Opera took audiences on a journey — literally and figuratively — as it presented its latest installment of repertory opera between August 19–26.
On a recent weekend Lyric Opera of Chicago gave its annual concert at Millennium Park during which the coming season and its performers are variously showcased. Several of the performers, who were featured at this “Stars of Lyric Opera” event, are scheduled to make their debuts in Lyric Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold beginning on 1 October.
Desire and deception; Amor and artifice. In Jan Philipp Gloger’s new production of Così van tutte at the Royal Opera House, the artifice is of the theatrical, rather than the human, kind. And, an opera whose charm surely lies in its characters’ amiable artfulness seems more concerned to underline the depressing reality of our own deluded faith in human fidelity and integrity.
On September 22, 2016, Los Angeles Opera presented Darko Tresnjak’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Macbeth. Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave based their opera on Shakespeare’s play of the same name.
On September 18th, at a casual Sunday matinee, Pacific Opera Project presented a surprising choice for a small company. It was Igor Stravinsky’s 1951 three act opera, The Rake’s Progress. It’s a piece made for today's supertitles with its exquisitely worded libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman.
We are nearing the end of Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 sojourn through 1766, a year that the company’s artistic director Ian Page admits was ‘on face value a relatively fallow year’. I’m not so sure: Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso, performed at the Cadogan Hall in April, was a gem. But, then, I did find the repertoire that Classical Opera offered at the Wigmore Hall in January, ‘worthy rather than truly engaging’ (review). And, this programme of Haydn and his Czech contemporary Josef Mysliveček was stylishly executed but did not absolutely convince.
Globalization finds its way ever more to San Francisco Opera where Italian composer Marco Tutino’s La Ciociara saw the light of day in 2015 and now, 2016, Chinese composer Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber has been created.
Pushkin’s poem Eugene Onegin is the first of the great line of Russian novels, passionately loved by all the literate of that most literary nation.
The problem with turning this classic into a romantic opera was compounded, though, by the poet’s ironic outlook, and this Tchaikovsky proposed to answer by changing the ending — by having the two protagonists admit their love and run off together. A friend of his sister’s took him to her garden house and, in the course of one of those long Russian summer evenings, argued him out of his resolve, convinced him to keep Pushkin’s classically balanced conclusion: as Onegin once coldly, preachily rejected the ardent young Tatiana, now, years later, when he has fallen in love with her, Tatiana coldly dismisses him. (No record survives of that conversation in the garden house, but what an opera it would make! — something earnest and chatty, like Dargomyzhsky’s Stone Guest or Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart and Salieri.)
In both Pushkin — where Tatiana simply states she will remain faithful to her marriage vows — and in the opera, where a rather more passionate debate takes place (because romantic opera requires passionate duets, and Tchaikovsky had denied himself one in Act I), Tatiana’s nobility in the teeth of her feelings, and Onegin’s despair, are made far more palpable in the music-drama.
It’s interesting to compare the two Onegins — novel and opera — to the two Thaïs, novel and opera, brought to our attention at the Met a few weeks ago. Anatole France was an ironist, and his novel about a courtesan who becomes a saint while the saint who converted her loses his faith is, frankly, a satire — in order to make a romantic opera out of it, Massenet had to invent its characters anew, and the degree of his success depends on whether or not you care for Massenet’s music. (I don’t.)
Pushkin was a sophisticated romantic, or rather, he had been one in his youth, and the plot of Onegin is his ironical view of the sort of young man he had been (or known), and the sort of woman he had loved. His characters are all great readers of French and English literature — he tells us just what each has been reading (Lensky aloud to Olga) — and their behavior owes a great deal to self-conscious affectation. Tatiana cannot even write her famous letter in Russian — she assumes a love letter must be written in French, her only model for such things. (Tchaikovsky changed that, of course.) Onegin identifies with Byron’s scarred, bored, doomed heroes even before he kills his best friend and goes into exile — and it is Pushkin’s joke that, having traveled the world like an aimless Byronic hero, he comes home to find he would actually have been quite happy living on a Russian country estate with the right wife. But she is no longer available — unlike so many society ladies, she is monogamous, and receives his overtures with distaste. We have had a hint of this — which Tchaikovsky retains for his opening scene — in her mother’s recollections of the novels she used to read (Richardson, Grandison), of the worthless man she fell in love with, of her arranged marriage to Tatiana’s father, of her contentment with “habit” over happiness. Like mother, like daughter: in the scenes that follow, we see the same story play out in the younger generation.Ekaterina Semenchuk as Olga and Piotr Beczala as Lenski.
When Tchaikovsky dramatized this sixty years after it was written, as his sister’s friend pointed out, the novel was too well known and too well loved to alter its conclusion. At that, he had a far easier time than Massenet in making musically romantic figures out of his hero and heroine — because they were more romantic to begin with, or maybe he was just better at it. Too, failing to find the proper ironic tone for Onegin himself (he comes into his own as a character only in the last act, when he has abandoned his posing), Tchaikovsky undercut him by making naïve Tatiana the focus of Act I, doomed Lensky the focus of Act II, and giving the big aria in Act III to Tatiana’s elderly husband, a cipher in the novel. Onegin is the odd man out in his own opera; this can make him hard to portray sympathetically, though Dmitri Hvorostovsky achieved it at the Met two years ago (and on HDTV telecast), appearing callow in Act I and passionate in Act III as if he had indeed undergone a soul-transformation.
The current Met revival of Onegin, though sumptuously cast and gloriously sung, has the flaw that Thomas Hampson is rather too old, too saturnine, too gray — in manner and appearance if not voice — to portray the poseur of Act I. His acting is carefully judged, his singing suave (he’s in better voice than he was in Thaïs, where his affect hardly seemed that of a desert ascetic), but his grayness, his chilliness, cause one to doubt the romantic conversion. This is not fatal in so excellent a revival, but it does restrain one’s enthusiasm — not least because Robert Carsen’s minimalist production all but omits the social settings that Tchaikovsky thought so important to comprehension of the story: we focus on the individuals, and if they let us down, there is nothing to fall back on. I will discuss my problems with this staging below.
Renée Fleming scored one of her worthiest triumphs of recent seasons in the last revival of Onegin, but to my mind Karita Mattila is better. If you (as I do) usually prefer one of these ladies to the other, Tatiana will not change your mind — if you love both, you will be very happy. As she has shown in Jenufa and Katya Kabanova, Mattila has a particular affinity for young women troubled by romantic complications. In the opening scene, following Pushkin, we find her buried in her book among the birch trees, but her Letter Scene is a sensual awakening, and here the shining metal of her voice takes on a quality, one might call it, of adolescent idealism. This is certainly enhanced by her childish, clumsy movements, the trembling of her hand when Onegin returns her letter, make this a finished stage portrayal, but it is her hopeful, springing soliloquy that thrills, makes her a girl newly awakened to love, a heroine. The woman who appears in Act III not only moves and dresses differently, she seems to sing with a different voice, a thicker, more mature sound, a womanly voice as opposed to a girlish one. Both voices are beautiful, it is hardly necessary to state — but that she has thought out how to deploy them to make us understand two different Tatianas, girl and wife, is a feature of Mattila’s claim to be the greatest singing actress on the lyric stage today.
The young Polish tenor Piotr Beczala, who is having quite a winter replacing less sturdy tenors in Lucia and Rigoletto, sang a perfect Lensky — ardent, jejune, his mood flashing from ecstasy to despair, with a delicious, youthfully liquid quality to his voice and even a hint of Italianate sob. Olga usually makes no impression, but Ekaterina Semenchuk’s attractive presence and luscious Slavic mezzo made us notice her brief moment at center stage in the opening scene. Wendy White sang an effective Larina, Barbara Dever a most imposing Filippyevna, Tony Stevenson a rather uncharacterized Triquet, and Sergei Aleksashkin a stalwart Prince Gremin without having quite the authority to overshadow the lovers in the last act as a really thunderous Russian bass will often do. Jiří Bělohlávek led the Met orchestra in a sublime, supportive, lithely flowing and (a few brass blooples aside) exquisite account of this wonderful score.
So we come to Robert Carsen’s scenery-free production, on which viewers bitterly divide. The point of its bareness appears to be to focus the drama more closely on the principals to the exclusion of all else — the social backdrop against which Pushkin and Tchaikovsky have lovingly placed them, for instance. The score contains three extended dance sequences by which Tchaikovsky unfolds the story from rural simplicity to gentry interacting to the grand world, and these are, to say the least, underplayed here — bored-looking peasant women rake leaves, cramped choristers sing of the pleasure of dancing while unable to move, and against the aristocratic polonaise, a troupe of footmen redress Onegin in court costume, scenting his fingers and touching up his coiffure. Since the characters are social beings, whose motivations owe a great deal to appearances, I get Tchaikovsky’s point but not Carsen’s. True, one does not waste time during the name-day party trying to find the lovers in the crowd, but there is no pleasure to be seen in that cramped assembly. The dance music is intrinsic to the opera, and it seems unnecessarily affected not to permit dancing if the orchestra is going to play all of it. What the staging does is not to draw attention to the principals or their story — the opera and the singers have already done that — but to the stage director. Did we need that? Is anything worthwhile accomplished by it?
Still: an engrossing sung and acted Onegin, not to be missed; if possible to be seen repeatedly.