The David S Operaworld blog

A series of commentary on the world of opera and of serious music hopefully with links to items of broader cultural interest, correlation with the subject at hand. There is plenty of room here for a certain amount of clowning around and general irreverence - not exclusive to me - but of course no trollers or spam please. Blog for coverage of the BBC PROMS 2010 - with thoroughly proofread/upgraded coverage of the 2009 Proms and of much else.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

RAVE: Tchaikovsky Eugen Onegin (Bolshoi at Palais Garnier - 2008) - guide to dandyism or Onegin for the cognitively dislocated

Viewing operas at cinemas has become somewhat a mainstay for numerous fans – over just these past three years. One finding traditional experience of opera, Eugen Onegin included, so predictable, perhaps then one might embrace what showed here as though taking in a breath of fresh air. I anticipated this being so - after having heard how Galina Vishnevskaya stormed out once during opening Moscow run of this production. In part, self-styled enfant terrible Dmitri Tcherniakov fulfilled expectations; in other ways he has not. Essentially, however, he is indeed the show here – except nobody actually sees him until curtain calls. And yet one seemed to partly miss him for Act Three; therein the singers and music recovered some due prominence.

I sighed ‘first mistake’ upon seeing action on stage, around a very long dinner table soon after the prelude began. John Steane, among others, has cited every turn this production makes as due to bad judgment. I am not so sure of that; Tcherniakov shows much craft at Regie, but he has not quite learned how to harness his gifts to extent he can show us near as much his command of the art of omission as that of commission. When Tcherniakov finally decided on more prudence, it appeared he was starting to wind up empty. A certain relaxed disdain in how this Onegin has been written up, has hinted at this production not quite well sustaining any well-organized challenge or offense to our sensibilities that we all need cringe. A new production Daniel Barenboim recently conducted in Vienna has been called more radical than this.

The first scene alone would make “Eugen Onegin as comedy” certainly plausible take on what has occurred here. Could one not catch on to several disturbing motifs within action presented, it might just as well remain so. Larina (Makvala Kasrashvili (very accomplished former Tatiana herself) and Emma Sarkisyan (Filipyevna) laughed themselves silly over mutual reminiscences. The staging denied the wistful character of the music, while making it very clear from the get-go exactly what Tcherniakov wanted.

A large family with guests is seated at the large table for dinner; the peasants’ chorus begins and continues as sung by them. That then climaxed in an ample sized Makvala Kasrashvili boisterously tossed to the floor amongst much general ruckus. Lensky may be in love with Olga, but it never got reciprocated, Olga laughing through Lensky’s first aria and then immediately flirting with the Onegin. She also got a bit too much in Tatiana’s face with her own aria – as though trying to make Tatiana snap out of it. One could predict well ahead, without knowing the plot, as to who would be dancing with whom in the next major ensemble scene – in which challenge between Onegin and Lensky quickly developed much physicality. Olga’s laughter at Lensky over his poetry, then over his amorous protestations fully went over the top.

Some playful tryst or gossip ridden dalliance looked to be happening backstage to start final scene of Act One - one of several more clever touches here. Most riotous was Lensky usurping Triquet’s couplets, toward making a complete buffoon out of himself, after smiling much of the way during his first confidences of anxiety to Olga during this scene.

Mariusz Kwiecien made for slightly effortful lyric casting as Onegin – simultaneously so cool an Onegin. The voice has good color to it, when Kwiecien sings softly, but it often gets pushed; this is a voice a bit reticent at sounding forth, except for when push and shove will enter the mix and did here. The tone then spread – as at any point Kwiecien started in on any hectoring - his threat to Lensky at end of Act Two, Scene 1 one surprising exception. As part of arduous scheme to avoid sentimentalizing anything, Kwiecien excited little sympathy as Onegin.

Kwiecien revealed good swagger while making the rounds to press the flesh during opening Act Three polonaise; He understood well throughout what he was singing. With his legato being a bit hit-and-miss however, he undercut what elegant or noble shape to lines one most often seeks. . He looked fine – better than baritone from second run of this production that opened in Moscow one month ago. That included at literally walking out on Tatiana at end of Act One, leaving her sitting at end of the table opposite to door through which he made his exit – all this replacing the gentlemanly thing to do. In putting forth doing so simply, this proves about the biggest coup de theatre for the entirety of this production.

One must admire the intensity Tatiana Monogarova invested in a deconstructed Tatiana in so many ways. The voice is a lyric, with burnished colors to it - a voice too that can turn cloudy at the break. She sang the Letter scene affectingly enough, but as affected perhaps most of all by the detachment of the staging and dramatic intensity called upon from, expected of her. Legato through normally expected couching of her lines and nuance, shading thereof got compromised.

Monogarova’s acting of Tatiana was riveting, excessively so to characterize what typically is a young woman in love. With the Letter Scene, after seeing her earlier moving slowly with constantly empty look, stare straight ahead, we in effect have unawares picked up Tatiana’s mad scene. The gestures, countenance, jerky motions, everything looked copied out of role-play infused group or drama therapy. The penetrating blank stare on Monogarova’s face – Monogarova not quite a great beauty to behold, certainly not ugly either – became its most intense during Act Two, Scene One – intentional irony this was so – enough to force me to avert my gaze
several times. Should some of this had to do with camera angle, this was also intentional. A momentarily stomach lurching experience of Tatiana from singer certainly competent to how to encompass the part’s vocal demands became hallmark of everything here.

Once into Act Three, while elegantly presenting herself, this Tatiana turned a little bland, though wanting to invite some sympathy during final scene with Onegin. Subtle hints of neurasthenia crept in – as good reference to earlier phase of narrative. Still I would like the name of unseen psychotherapist involved for how far he has been able to get this Tatiana over span of just several years (since the first two acts take place).

Emma Sarkisyan, as Filipyevna, seated herself by Dunaev as he sang his long lament, making gestures for every line, comparable to one finding inserted emoticons at the end of every sentence in a long letter one gets. What frisson in check should be there – purpose for why Tchaikovsky stretches this out - got zapped. Vedernikov, following inartistic goals of this production a little too closely, kept things mildly too foursquare for this scene. He however though infused its closing lines in moderately high tremolo from raptly attentive Bolshoi violins for shudder to evoke – after a quite eccentrically staged duel to have run across.

Andrei Dunaev was the elegantly turned Lensky, one displaying fine open melos tonally to supplement Lensky’s poetic ardor. It was as subtle an aspect of anything one would ever encounter here. In portraying the poet, affably so, Dunaev still conveyed a Lensky altogether cool, self-absorbed. Except for slight strain for a few high notes, Dunaev provided most of Lensky’s music with lovely shape, then only to provide just adequate connection with others on stage while interacting with him – something we usually take for granted in a piece like this. And yet in this production it was impossible to take anything much at all so. It is unfortunate, however, that the duel scene quickly became so undercut, first off by (while taking place in the same long rectangular dining room) having appear during opening chords family and guests all wel engaged in moving out. Valery Gilmanov made a serious Zaretski with strong vocal presence, but Guillot, Onegin’s assistant, had this inanely persistent laugh, as though having been on the bottle all the previous night and not lacking the stamina to carry on more.

Triquet’s couplets, as sung by Dunaev, conveyed a unusually cool, irreverent irony to them, devoid now of any smarminess for sure, who to deliver them but Lensky usurping an always merry, lean as a stick aging Triquet. Triquet certainly looked as though he had had a few too many while enjoying someone else instead sing what he has written. Even Dunaev getting on the floor with a small mechanical white fluffy dog, imitating its motions – I fully expected him to lift one leg - while crowd enlivening - worked no wonders on a still, very still, phased out Tatiana.

Most unqualified success here was the pleasantly dark-hued Olga of Margarita Mamsirova, beautifully, securely even across the range. She contributed plenty of spunk, while fortunately stopping short of over-acting Olga. As this production dictated, she also stopped short of ever making Olga sympathetic at all, thus her looks of incomprehension to shock at Lensky during Act Two almost registered as her deserved comeuppance that things might turn out so badly. Anatoli Kotscherga, singing Gremin’s aria almost entirely in Kwiecien’s face, carried necessary gravitas - compromised by odd acting and effortful legato - in vocal weight and physical stature. His voice, heard as Boris Godunov for Abbado (Sony), is full, if still awkwardly produced.

Makvala Kasrashvili, at age of 66, sang Larina more light toned than some, showing slight fraying at the edges, and fell into easy temptation here of hamming things up too much. She can be found on youtube, singing the Letter scene in concert attire, from approximately twelve years ago, with more security and (less interfered with) ample feeling than Monogarova provided us. Away from Tcherniakov, his influence,I’d certainly like to hear Monogarova sing this again. Emma Sarkisyan had the authority with the words of Tatiana’s nurse, look and feel of experience to it all, but voice today showing much wear and tear. Until at least Act Two, the unaffected animation which she invested the part enhanced well all that went on.

With firm sense of orchestral and choral ensemble, Alexander Vedernikov conducted with consistent strong forward motion and frequently buoyant spring to many lines. The big dances in the last two acts had much vitality and swagger to them. One also found practically sufficient pause for poetic scoring to depict atmosphere, but self-conscious on Vedernikov’s part to so painstakingly avoid risking hint of any excess. Feel for this Onegin, as guided by the staging increasingly felt two-dimensional – even imprudently rushed occasionally. He supported his singers well without allowing them much room to expand out on their lines - to extent some of them could have. The cool, distancing effect of Tcherniakov’s production thus held sway. And yet Vedernikov indeed has contributed much vitality and freshness overall to this enterprise.

Trademark here was once more the production itself. Take for instance the mime Filipyevna of Sarkisyan during scene with Lensky soon before he is shot, not to mention the practically barbaric psycho-analytic handling of Tatiana, making it seem that Tatiana has been through worse trauma than Jenufa or Kat’a Kabanova. Idea here, especially with Lensky in his scene was obvious - to avoid, at all cost, sentimentalizing anything. Nevertheless, it backfired on Tcherniakov. In place of genuine emotion, one had instead insipid to silly bathos. Business of Onegin, while facing Tatiana, putting a gun to two different parts of his body at the very end came across as meaningless, silly. There is much craft here, no doubt, in how to move characters around and in how they interact amongst themselves to a detailed extent. Such bravado in putting this on display, though, became very disorienting. It takes much discipline to stage something on a unit set; only a little ways does Tcherniakov seem to have this down yet.

The smugness (frequently on faces of chorus members), self-absorption, constant smiles and laughter even through some serious passages quickly became clumsy. Typical was the highly affected smile on face of one dapper young lad - sitting next to who we soon discovered is a laughing, inebriated Guillot - as tensions rose, among large gathering, between Onegin and Lensky. Dandyism on display, within much a façade of detached elegance here, toward depicting less polite behavior than should be the norm originates from Pushkin and Tchaikovsky. However, what comes across is an exposed narcissism in how Tcherniakov presents his vision. Overall modus operandi eventually I fear more than just intentionally comes across cognitively displaced or dislocated; this entire enterprise has accomplished just that.

Vishnevskaya may have unintentionally provided this Onegin some imprimatur by storming out on it as allegedly she had done; she certainly made this production worth seeing once. One may just never return for second helpings - except to bewilder or confound one's friends. When there is a Russian remake of Stepford Wives, whenever that could occur, the new director need not look further than this Onegin to cast it – this year’s Tatiana - woman who just won the Cardiff - Mrs. Van Sant and Monogarova as the lead (the Katharine Ross character). Once having better learned his craft plus some empathy, Tcherniakov can direct.

For especially the warmer feel of the two leads and equally idiomatic playing by the Met orchestra, better engaged podium of Gergiev, if less so for the Lensky (Vargas) and wobbly Olga (Elena Zaremba), my preference for dvd selection between these two still clearly points toward the Met. If told that mercury levels in potage for the Larinas had become precariously high, I would hardly bat an eye after observing what got sent us here from Paris.

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