Tchaikovsky - Eugene Onegin

ONP Bastille, Monday September 20 2010

Conductor: Vasily Petrenko. Production: Willy Decker. Sets & costumes: Wolfgang Gussmann. Lighting: Hans Toelstede. Madame Larina: Nadine Denize. Tatiana: Olga Guryakova. Olga: Alisa Kolosova. Filipievna: Nona Javakhidze . Eugene: Ludovic Tézier. Lenski: Joseph Kaiser. Prince Gremin: Gleb Nikolski. Monsieur Triquet: Jean-Paul Fouchécourt. Ugo: Rabec Zaretski. Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris.

There are evenings at the opera when everything is so sound that you can’t easily put your finger on what it was that left you not-quite-satisfied (“sur votre faim”). So it was this Monday at Eugene Onegin.

The singers? Surely not. Nadine Denize may now make a rather underpowered Madame Larin, but hers isn’t a pivotal role. Olga Guryakova’s voice may be a little harder and stiffer than it was back in War and Peace, but, as my neighbour said, what magnificent sounds she makes. And (a) whatever she may have lost (and that’s not much), she has gained in experience: what an artist (letter scene of impressive restraint, no playing to the gallery in the big number) ; and (b) what an actress (looking as young and wide-eyed a Tatiana as she was a Natasha). I was relieved to find that the friend who told me her voice was shot (having gone the wobbly way of all Russian voices) was wrong. I wonder why she isn’t at least as famous as Netrebko (in different parts, of course); and only wish I’d seen and heard her more often.

Tézier was, here, particularly wooden and charmless (and his costume looked as if it had been cut to make it so) but made up for it, as usual, in spades with the facility and charisma of his singing. You have to wonder what a phenomenon he might have been if he were the bête de scène he unfortunately isn’t. Kaiser’s Lensky was more tall and gawky young lover, unsure of himself, than seductively romantic poet, but I suppose that was the production, not him; vocally he certainly wasn’t Russian, and maybe lacked éclat, especially at the slightly fuzzy top; but here I’m stressing the little that was wrong, when he was mostly very much alright. Alisa Kolosova was a youthful but strong Olga –one to watch out for in the future, especially if she develops a more distinctive vocal personality. Nona Javakhidze may also be worth looking out for – she might even have been better cast as Larina. Fouchécourt was in his place in a walk-on character part (rather than ruining the evening in a leading role). Gleb Nikolsky was sort of the opposite of Tézier: plenty of presence but a disappointing Gremin.

So no, I don’t think it was the singers. How about the production?

No. This isn’t an earth-shattering (or ground-breaking, as people now like to say) show, but it makes up in single-set, one-interval coherence for what risks being single- (and pretty much empty-) set monotony, especially in the first part, which lasts 100 minutes. With decent directing and period costumes (more of which later), it’s solidly “efficacious” as the French say.

Many of you may have seen it on TV and for all I know (I can’t check, I’m writing on a plane) it may be out on DVD. The single (You should have got that by now) set is basically a vast, skewed box to the front and gently rolling hills to the rear against a blank backdrop. (The chorus are mostly confined to the area behind the box, open to the rear; as a result, they are less audible than they should be and have frequent trouble following the conductor.) In part one, the set is yellow, streaked with orange, bringing to mind wheat fields, with a red brocade sofa to the left and a few chairs to the right. In part two (the duel then act three) it’s white, streaked with black and grey, and in the final act an impressively gigantic chandelier is lowered down above a few black chairs. Each of the two parts runs without a break of any kind, the main “idea” of the show and one that knits the story together quite neatly.

There are some striking images: Tatiana in her white dress against the night sky before she writes her letter, kneeling at a chair; tiny, rouged Monsieur Triquet attempting a few rococo dance steps on his podium; that chandelier coming down… At the end, Onegin kneels at another chair, on the same spot, to write (a letter to Tatiana, presumably) as he sings his closing words. Madame Larina’s guests, in brightly-coloured day (rather than evening) costumes involving a lot of gaudy checks and stove-pipe hats, evoke (to an English member of the audience) Frith’s Victorian crowd scenes. Prince Gremin’s, however, are all in stiff (funereal, even, as if in mourning) bustled black, more like James Tissot. Is the idea that the country is so very far behind the capital? Half a century seems to be stretching it… But (a) I’m no expert on costume so maybe I’ve got my dates wrong and (b) in any case, these days you often get all periods on stage at the same time so who knows?

No, this is a fair enough production. In the end, my conclusion was that the trouble was in the pit and, more particularly on the podium. Vasily Petrenko’s conducting (the bee’s knees according to some critics) seemed to me placid and bland when I’d have preferred it to be passionately red-blooded. With more thrust and better coordination, the orchestra would have stirred out of its torpor and the strong cast might have proven excellent. Why couldn’t we have had Jurowsky?

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