Thursday, January 21, 2016

Onegin and the Weight of Time Past

Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin
Royal Opera House, London
January 2, 2015

The fleeting, haughty Onegin on the prowl.
Photo credit: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian
The fourth and final stop in our holiday season opera tourism circuit was London, to catch the great Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Eugene Onegin singing in his native Russian at the Royal Opera House. And while our favorite Siberian villain baritone was the decisive factor for this trip (even more so after seeing him in the very emotional Trovatore at the Met), we were positively surprised by the inventiveness of the direction as well as by the rest of the cast.

Tatyana in her reading room.
Photo credit: ROH
A co-production of the Royal Opera House, the Fondazione Teatro Regio di Torino and Opera Australia, this Onegin realized the directorial vision of ROH’s own Kasper Holten. It was one of the most clever and thought-provoking stagings I’ve seen. Holten’s Onegin emphasizes many of the core themes of the opera including reflections on the passage of time, the pervasive nature of nostalgia, and the inevitable consequences of one’s wrong choices. It was simple yet effective, intellectual yet very moving at the same time.

The fateful encounters of our youth.
Photo credit: ROH
The straightforward and very versatile sets consisted primarily of a grand partition with four floor-to-ceiling doors that could open up onto abstract projections of the countryside in fall, winter and spring as the scene required or else serve as an element in Prince Gremin’s palace in the final scenes. Recessed features in the great wall also housed bookcases. After all, books play an important role in Tatyana’s young life as a passionate reader, and will inform many of her actions.

While things start simple in this production, elements from one scene to the next begin to accumulate. Tatyana’s books begin strewn across the floor. The servants pick them up. She goes and scatters them all over the place again. And there they remain. As does the rest of the detritus from all intervening scenes, including bails of hay from the harvest, fallen tree branches, cabinet doors ripped from their hinges, even Lensky’s corpse – yes poor Michael Fabiano had to lie there motionless after his defeat in the duel for the last 45 minutes of the opera or so. Unfortunate soul!

Detritus of previous scenes clutter the foreground at the ball.
Photo credit: ROH
These unusual yet transparent directorial decisions all added up to a very clear take on the material: with the passing of time the decisions we make have consequences that we must forever live with. The passage of time was also emphasized by the decision to have many of the early scenes acted out by younger versions of the Tatyana and Onegin characters played by dancers while the singers looked wistfully upon the disingenuousness of their prior selves and seem to sing their roles in a tone of regretful nostalgia – a reflexive commentary on the paths they went down, which squares up with the main lines of the story.

Dancers reenact the past as their alter egos look on.
Photo credi: ROH
The use of costumes to identify characters over time was also particularly charged. The red dress that Tatyana continues to sport under her princess coat right up to the end suggests that maybe underneath her newfound glitz she has not changed so much. Key events of the opera leave a trail on stage, as well as below the surface of subtle costuming decisions, as a memento of the long lasting impact of certain moments in the characters’ lives. The past is inescapable and our decisions and transgressions, the messes we make and the books we read stick with us. They clutter the brave new world we are eventually forced to inhabit. They make us who we are. They either hinder or inform us – humbling reflections as we embrace a new year, look back at the one just past and put forth our resolutions for the one ahead.

Onegin is about to make the mistake of his life.
Photo credit: ROH
Tchaikovsky’s score under the baton of maestro Semyon Bychkov was more romantic and heart wrenching than ever. As to the cast, it was truly excellent throughout without a single weak link. Dmitri Hvorostovsky in the title role was as expected seductive, smooth and haughty, with his velvety baritone more fluid than usual in his native Russian. However, Dmitri’s rendition of Onegin was not as gut-stirring as I was hoping for. True that the last time I saw him live it was for his comeback at the Met when he was showered by love and support from the public and his colleagues alike, so there was a whole different emotional vibe surrounding him and possibly in his own performance, too.

Lensky woos his lady love.
Photo credit: ROH
The singer who truly had me head over heels was tenor Michael Fabiano in his ROH debut with the role of the poet Lensky. While I’ve heard good things about this American tenor (who was also the recipient of the Richard Tucker award in 2014), I was not prepared for such soaring, intense, ardent passion. Fabiano was the quintessential young idealistic poet in love and had so much vocal charisma that I was truly upset to see him die so early in the opera, I wanted to hear way more from him (and having him lie dead on stage until the end did not help!).  

I am happy to report that the main takeaway of our little holiday opera tourism is that the tenor famine is officially over. Russell Thomas (as Pollione in Norma), Francesco Meli (as Carlo in Giovanna D’Arco) and now Michael Fabiano convinced me that there are still tenors out there capable of sounding powerfully manly yet goosebump-inducing and swooningly moving. Thank goodness as lately I was starting to lose hope.

Tatyana relives the letter she once wrote.
Photo credit: ROH
Australian soprano Nicole Car was a fresh and lyric Tatyana with an effortless beautiful sound. Acting-wise I found her more convincing when she portrayed the younger Tatyana in love compared to the older wiser version that came across as more stiff and confused than disdainful and mature. Bass-baritone Ferruccio Furlanetto as Prince Gremin was magnificent, with a deep seductive instrument and a very moving rendition of the older soldier who rediscovered the joys of love with the young Tatyana. It was one of those magic operatic moments when time stopped and everybody held their breath.

Prince Gremin with his fountain of youth.
Photo credit: ROH
Even the Royal Opera House itself seems to be going through a similar upheaval at the moment, grappling with the detritus of its past in this space. Their home at Covent Garden is breathtakingly gorgeous but also seemingly very messy. The common areas were all very stressful to navigate, definitely poorly organized and clearly not capacious enough to comfortably accommodate the crowds. As far as we can tell, the company recently started extensive renovation works, though it is unclear whether the discomfort we experienced was due to the works or rather the works are aimed at fixing the issue. In any event I definitely look forward to visiting the ROH again to check out how the ambitious renovation will solve the problem in the future.

– Lei & Lui

Younger Onegin enacts years of intervening debauchery while older Onegin watches.
Photo credit: ROH
The men prepare for their duel.
Photo credit: ROH
Princess Tatyana spurns her desired lover.
Photo credit: ROH
When Tatyana knew young love.
Photo credit: ROH

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