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.
Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.
‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’
An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
In 2015, Bampton Classical Opera’s production of Salieri’s La grotta di Trofonio - a UK premiere - received well-deserved accolades: ‘a revelation ... the music is magnificent’ (Seen and Heard International), ‘giddily exciting, propelled by wit, charm and bags of joy’ (The Spectator), ‘lively, inventive ... a joy from start to finish’ (The Oxford Times), ‘They have done Salieri proud’ (The Arts Desk) and ‘an enthusiastic performance of riotously spirited music’ (Opera Britannia) were just some of the superlative compliments festooned by the critical press.
How many singers does it take to make an opera? There are single-role operas - Schönberg’s Erwartung (1924) and Eight Songs for a Mad King by Peter Maxwell Davies (1969) spring immediately to mind - and there are operas that just require a pair of performers, such as Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart i Salieri (1897) or The Telephone by Menotti (1947).
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.
Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.
A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.
Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented 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.
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.