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Copyright Vlaamse Opera / Frederik Beyens
02 Dec 2011

Antwerp’s Puzzling Tchaikovsky Rarity

From the moment the curtain rose to reveal a loony bin instead of the 15th Century Inn of the libretto, it seemed likely the Flemish Opera was going to raise more questions than it answered about Tchaikovsky’s rarely performed The Enchantress.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Tsjarodejka (The Enchantress)

Nastasia (Kuma): Ausrine Stundyte; Nikita: Valery Alexeev; Jevpraxija: Irina Makarova; Prince Yuri: Dimitri Polkopin; Mamirov: Taras Shtonda; Paisi: Nikolai Gassiev; Ivan Sjoeran: Igot Bakan; Foka: Jevgeni Polikanin; Polja: Anneke Luyten; Balakin: Vesselin Ivanov; Potap: Thomas Dear; Loekasj: Stephen Adrieans; Kittsjiga: Thomas Muerk; Nenila: Bea Desmet; Conductor: Dmitri Jurowski; Director: Tatjana Gűrbaca; Set and Lighting Design: Klaus Grűnberg; Costume Design: Marc Weeger and Silke Willrett; Chorus Master: Yannis Pouspourikas.

Above: Copyright Vlaamse Opera / Frederik Beyens


I certainly applaud the enterprising company for the adventurous season on offer during which locals can also take in Il Viaggio a Reims, Il Duca d’Alba and Mahagonny along with the slightly more mainstream Forza and a lone bread-and-butter run of Carmen. The overall high quality of productions here and the excellent caliber of the singers has won the loyalty and trust of a public who will clearly embrace new experiences beyond the standard repertoire. That said, The Enchantress was, for me, an opportunity missed.

Back to the afore-mentioned nut house: the first act was populated by an ensemble dressed in a ragtag, indecipherable array of (mostly) contemporary costumes (by Marc Weeger and Silke Willrett) that included mismatched track suits, letter jackets, medical wear, shorts, mix-and-match gowns, drag, military, terrorists, a large polar bear ‘mascot,’ and yes, even a female chorister in a giant white knit penis costume with removable ‘cap.’ There were real genitals on display as well, with two naked muscled ballerinos jiggle-flopping their way through the proceedings, one sporting a design of body-paint and wearing a surgical mask, the other disguised by a full rubber head of a green alien seemingly out of the bar scene in the original Star Wars. (Perhaps this was to protect the innocent.) The box set (designer Klaus Grűnberg) was a white tiled asylum (with some more penis images graffiti’d on the walls), packed with ‘choral risers’ built of overturned white plastic bottle crates. At rise, an acrobat is discovered balancing horizontally on his stomach atop an aluminum A-frame ladder center stage, while the inmates revel manically in the crowded playing space.

Did no one see the problem of presenting a virtually unknown work in such a radical ‘interpretation’? An audience hungry to know the piece has read a program synopsis and surtitles that are completely at odds with what is being presented visually. And while we are wondering how it all reconciles, what it might ‘mean,’ and what the hell the dancing polar bear is doing up there, we are mightily distracted from the full impact of some worthy music, well performed. The title refers to the central character of Nastasia (nicknamed ‘Kuma’), dubbed by some historians as "the Russian Carmen," so potent is her sensual appeal. It is not the lovely soprano Ausrine Stundyte’s fault that director Tatjana Gűrbaca has imagined her as more ‘floozy’ than ‘fatale.’ Decked out in a Sally Bowles spaghetti strap cocktail dress and black suit jacket, black hose, and a head piece that looks like a Beefeater black furry hat with a serious feathered cowlick, Kuma comes off visually about as ‘irresistible’ as a roadside hooker at 6:00 am. It doesn’t help that Ausrine is made to sashay and shimmy and stroke and pout with every Vamp cliché in the catalogue. What Ms. Stundyte does accomplish is singing very beautifully indeed, with a sizable lyrico-spinto instrument that encompasses a robust mid-register and a potent top with just a hint of steel. Previous encounters with her have revealed her to be capable of much more personalized, inventive acting than was asked of her here.

The crowd management seemed mostly designed to get masses out of the way as best as possible, in order for the principals to get on stage through the double doors, far upstage center. A couple of soloists (Prince Nikita, Deacon Mamirov) were brought downstage, but others were not, including young Prince Yuri whose lingering in the door made a weak first impression, distanced as he was from the audience. Although the upper class were in business suits, it was hard to guess what their relationships were owing to the lack of specificity in the stage groupings.

Mercifully, the obstructive ladder was finally struck and the space was freed for more varied pictures. There was a wonderful sense of repose in Act One’s great ‘a capella’ ensemble, but the lighting (Mr. Grűnberg again), having been adequate this far, was suddenly cued to throw the whole stage into very dim shadows. Very. Dim. Faces-Lost-Dim. Like this effect, the entire Act was littered with un-illuminated generalities and a conspicuous lack of focus. By the time One ended with Mamirov being pummeled with the knit penis head wielded by the Star Wars nude (laughing silently-if-demonically), I was worried — very worried — where else this could go. And then…

Act Two, set in a non-specific, elegant grey-curtained office-cum-dining-room showed some startling dramatic bite and unexpected character development. Turns out we are in Soviet Russia, and the privileged class are powerful apparatchiks. Princess Jevpraxija is rubber-stamping documents at her desk as she laments abandonment by her husband Nikita. Irina Makarova, looking regal in a tailored State uniform, turned in a performance of searing intensity and vibrant, polished vocalism. My immediate thought as the mezzo poured out impressively controlled chest tones as well as unstinting, ringing phrases above the staff was "wow, what a Verdi singer she would be." And sure enough, the thrilling Ms. Makarova has the full arsenal of those Italian roles in her repertoire. Hers was a deeply felt, varied interpretation, ranging from buttoned-down acceptance of her situation; to ranting, clothes-shedding defiance; to heartfelt, melting phrases of mourning and loss. Hers was arguably ‘the’ performance of the night, although to be fair, Ms. Stundyte become much more engaged (and better used) later in the evening, and her Act IV aria was beautifully judged and exceptionally moving.

The son, Prince Yuri was well-taken by Dimitri Polkopin, although his straight-forward tenor bullies its way through more than a few high phrases, concerned a bit more with volume than with suavity. Still, he displayed good theatrical instincts and even contributed some wit to the plot machinations as he played Mama’s Boy to Ms. Makarova’s Diva Mother. The cat-and-mouse, give-and-take staging of Act Two showed good use of the stage, and displayed a real search for dramatic motivation. Valery Alexeev was heard to best advantage paired up with these two co-stars, and his rather blustery delivery that began the show transformed into a focused, forward-placed, no-nonsense performance of real import. Taras Shtonda made the most potent vocal impression of the men, his naturally booming, orotund bass impressing all evening long. Mr. Shtonda was hampered a bit by the Mr. Magoo-like demeanor and presence that were imposed on him, but he got around that with his solid, meaningful, arching phrasing. As the intruder Paisi (a vagabond disguised as monk), Nikolai Gassiev offered a spirited, consistent portrayal, but on this evening his reliable comprimario tenor sounded just a bit raspy.

Director and design team showed a real clarity now. Some meaningful stage business was mined to good effect as the desk is re-dressed as a formal dining table, and set with dinnerware and accoutrements for the "royal" family to sup together. Physical and emotional relationships were revealed through well-considered movement, and there was a conscientious search for dramatic truth. Just as I was basking in all this honesty, taking in the affecting score, and marveling that we were now at another show freed of the prior absurdities, damn if the upstage curtain didn’t part, and a wagon full of milk-crate-mountains, scruffy protesters, and that damn bear, come rolling downstage at us! Truthfulness? Poof! Gone! (However, as Kittsjiga in this scene, Thomas Muerkas offered some exceptional singing as he denounced the aristocracy). And so the show careened willy-nilly from honesty to self-indulgent distraction, ultimately leaving us with no cogent over-all impression except wondering what the composer’s Enchantress might really be like.

In the pit, the Flemish band played cleanly, enthusiastically, and responsively, although I have heard Dmitri Jurowksi elicit more passion and commitment on other occasions. The maestro seemed a bit detached, perhaps a bit hamstrung by the excesses of the production. Certainly, Chorus Master Yannis Pouspourikas ably coached his ensemble to pour out long stretches of full-throated phrases, and they scored big in the unaccompanied scene. But owing to the rambunctious motion often asked of them, phrase endings were not always clean, and on one occasion, there were internal rhythmic coordination problems.

In the end, while the first act music came off as most characterful, on my first hearing the writing became more generic, even gratuitous, as the show wore on. While it was a welcome opportunity to experience The Enchantress at long last and at a company of fine repute, whatever good intentions Flemish Opera had, it must remain to another enterprising theatre to more fully make its case.

Jim Sohre

Click here for cast and other production information

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