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Operatic fantasy or reality?

Londres, 14/03/2008. Royal Opera House. Covent Garden. Eugene Onegin, 3-act opera by Chaikovsky to libretto by composer and K. S. Shilovsky based on Pushkin poem (Moscow, 1879). Steven Pimlott, Production. Elaine Kidd, Revival Director. Anthony McDonald, Designs. Peter Mumford, Lighting. Linda Dobell, Choreography. Gerald Finley (Eugene Onegin), Hibla Gerzmava and Marina Poplavskaya (Tatiana), Ekaterina Semenchuk (Olga), Diana Montague (Madame Larina), Piotr Beczala (Lensky), Hans-Peter König (Prince Gremin), Elizabeth Sikora (Filipievna), Vuyani Mlinde (Zaretsky), Robin Leggate (M. Triquet). Royal Opera House Orchestra. Jirí Belohlávek, Conductor.
imagen Few operas are as determinedly realistic as Eugene Onegin. Mundane actions, such as the jam-making that opens Act One, offer a version of life in which fantasies of passion and high drama -the stuff of opera- have been safely put to one side, in favour of the calmer pleasures of domesticity. But is this reality or itself only operatic fantasy? By the end of the opera, with the once-dreamy Tatyana married off to the much older Prince Gremin, it is no longer clear whether the picture of contentment provided by Tatyana’s mother, nurse-maid and sister Olga at the opening is any more than a carefully constructed but thin-walled fabrication, shutting out both the pain and also the potential ecstasy of strong human feeling.

As such, what any production of the opera has to figure out above all is how to handle the presentation of real life into which Tatyana’s novel-fed passions for Onegin can explode, and can be brutally (or perhaps just realistically?) dismissed by him at the end of Act One. This Covent Garden revival of Steven Pimlott’s 2006 production, by Elaine Kidd, undercut such attempts from the start, with a set showing green fields behind a placid river that managed to be neither sufficiently realistic nor sufficiently stylised, as if aiming for a realism that remained elusive: bizarrely so, given the resources of the venue. Tatyana’s bedroom for the letter scene was similarly misplaced: more boutique B&B than dacha, while the light from the windows reflected directly onto the night sky backdrop, and the appearance of a large stationary orange moon seemed simply clumsy.

Worse still, Act Two here opens with a staging of the dream scene for Tatyana from Pushkin’s original prose poem, wisely left out by Tchaikovsky when he came to construct his libretto. The Covent Garden programme includes a translation of the whole episode; a sure sign that the scene makes little sense on its own. Tatyana’s encounter with a variety of different wild animals becomes more pantomime than nightmare, and her swoon on encountering a comically unterrifying black bear brought deserved laughter from the audience. What functions as a fascinating pre-Freudian glimpse of Tatyana’s true passions in Pushkin’s poem, here simply ignores the capacity of the music to have already told us far more about the inner workings of the heroine’s mind than any sight of actors dressed as cats, frogs and giant crab claws.



© 2008 by Clive Barda

The dream sequence then leads directly into Tatyana’s name day party, the animals revealed as no more than dancers in fancy dress, yet the fantastic atmosphere remains, with all the guests clad in gaudy colours that continue to distract from the dramatic concentration on the developing tensions between Onegin and Olga’s beloved Lensky, leading to their duel and Lensky’s death.

Perhaps some of these aspects held together more convincingly in Pimlott’s original conception. Certainly, despite so many missteps, it is notable that by the time the duel scene arrives, the ‘look’ of the opera suddenly seems to fall into place, leading to a final hour that is entirely compelling. Now the river from Act One is frozen, and the fields covered with snow. At the end of the duel the snow remains, through an extraordinary transition in which Onegin is left on stage, desperate and aimless, while the Polonaise that opens Act Three plays first as ironic background music, and then as accompaniment for the revelation of a St Petersburg cityscape, the comic bear now resurfacing as a sad animal on a chain, while the frozen river becomes a playground for skaters. Onegin’s glimpses of his duelling second, or of a bloodstained Lensky among the crowds, here have an unnerving power to depict the possibility of reality disrupted by Onegin’s traumatised dissatisfaction. By the final scene, Tatyana’s bedroom reappears as a revealingly extensive library, her new station in life as Gremin’s wife giving her all the books she could ever want as she settles into the respectability of rich married existence, even as the stories within those books have now become just stories.

Already in the first half of the opera, some of the performances were more than enough to divert attention away from shortcomings in the staging. The rich mezzo of Diana Montague as Larina, Tatyana’s mother, gave a strong impression of a part that can easily seem incidental; other secondary characters were equally well shaped dramatically and vocally, including Elizabeth Sikora as Tatyana’s nurse-maid, and a fine cameo from Robin Leggate as a refreshingly unmannered Monsieur Triquet. Best of all was Hans-Peter König, who transformed Gremin’s Act 3 aria to the pleasures of love into an unexpected dramatic highpoint with a beautifully judged performance. Only Ekaterina Semenchuk as Olga irritated with her overacted high spirits, despite the undeniable beauties of her voice.



© 2008 by Clive Barda

Of the two Tatyanas, Hibla Gerzmava (heard on 10 March) gave an impeccable vocal performance, but one that remained ultimately uninvolving, her Letter Scene too much crystalline set piece rather than dramatic development; Marina Poplavskaya (on 14 March) was slightly rougher at times, and at times occasionally constricted at the top of her range, but considerably more enthralling, holding the attention even during moments in Act Two when she was no more than a worried onlooker.

Yet in a work that is usually seen as Tatyana’s to the point of puzzlement that Tchaikovsky bothered to keep Pushkin’s original title, it was Gerald Finley’s Onegin that dominated both performances here. Through his assured and nuanced vocal presence, it seemed unusually clear that it was his character, in all its terrifying ennui, that drives the plot; an ennui transformed by Act Three into his desperate passion for the woman -and the life- that he had once spurned. The increasing success of the production, together with Poplavskaya’s fine demonstration of Tatyana’s final torment, caught between past dreams and present situation, are combined with Finley’s long-delayed outpouring of passion to make the final scene memorable and -vitally- entirely realistic.

Este artículo fue publicado el 04/04/2008

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