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Monday, March 10, 2008

Le manchot est mort, Vive le manchot: Eugene Onegin at Lyric Opera

It doesn't feel right to begin this entry without acknowledging the fact that my beloved Bad Badtz Maru evening bag began shuffling off its evil spheniscid coil. The side of the bag is pulling away from the gilded clasp frame, no doubt because I insisted on trying to fit both my iPod and moleskine in it at the same time. But fear not! Months ago, I was seized with fear about Badtz's inevitable demise (although I hoped that sad end was far in the future), and I purchased a back-up Badtz on eBay. I'm still going to see if i can repair this one, but a successor lurks in the wings.

But onward, eventually, to Russia.

I still have in the hopper a review of La Traviata that gives Fleming's considerable assets their due, and my determination to put my adoration of Dr. Atomic into words was recently renewed by a conversation with one of my OTSFM co-volunteers. I'm not going to dwell on the fact that I do not have a review of Falstaff on deck, thanks to the family medical drama that ate New York. But for now, I'll write while the iron is hot. Or something.

In contrast to the 1984-like unified party line of Giulio Cesare, the Pompous Program for Eugene Onegin contains a multiplicity of viewpoints entirely appropriate to a not!opera representing a problematic adaptation of Pushkin.

My bias is showing in that paragraph. The fact of the matter is, the blurbs from the design team are every bit as party-line tinged as those in the PP for Cesare, I just happen to love this design team (originally headed by designer Robert Carsen (he of the austerely luscious Orfeo ed Euridice and the world's most noteworthy grey walls in Dialogues des Carmélites), and here directed in revival by Paula Suozzi).

Although the source material Eugene Onegin is only a novella to begin with, it is written in verse by the Jolly Inviolable Russian Giant, Pushkin. Guest Pompous Essayist David Shengold, tells us that Tchaikovsky was not only reviled by contemporary and subsequent authorities on Russian literature, but Ivan himself also had quite the crisis of conscience about the libretto (which he coadapted with Konstantin Shilovsky) and the decision to stage it as "lyric scenes," thus freeing himself from some of the conventions and expectations of opera. (For more on this, see the this review at The Glittering Eye.)

But whatever qualms Tchaikovsky might have had, he ultimately took a whizz on the novella and the Aristotelian unities and produced scenes depicting just three points in time for Onegin. But this production team gathers up the urine-soaked brilliance (one hopes, for the sake of sanitation, that Tchaikovsky's bodily fluids have vodka as a significant component) and runs with it. In their unified vision, Onegin is not just the central figure: The story comprises his memories of Tatyana and his own formative events surrounding her.

As with the other productions from this team (Carsen's design was, once again, executed in sets and costumes by Michael Levine and lighting by Christine Binder [Who was not, apparently, on the job in Orfeo, but was for La Bohème and La Traviata {forthcoming}.]), their vision is realized in lovely fashion and constitutes a thought-provoking (if problematic) reading of the story.

Act I begins in Onegin's metaphorical autumn. He appears exactly in the center of the stage, which is covered in leaves. Only the small, tight circle surrounding the chair in which he sits is swept clear, creating a cold, bare space amid a gorgeous tumult of reds, browns, oranges, and golds. The lighting is such that the scrim's presence is obvious, giving a slightly grey cast to everything. In the last few bars of the opening music, Onegin stands and raises his hand imploringly to the sky as a scatter of leaves waft down and grace his shoulders. (A note: Michael Levine says "Onegin drops Tatyana's letter and the leaves fall." I missed any letter dropping, and since he pointedly hands her letter back to her at the end of Act I, that represents a failed saving throw vs. continuity. My version WINS!)

The stage greys out (the backlighting of the scrim is cut off) exactly as the music ends. It's an effective and affecting way to take the audience from Onegin's present into his past, although I'm not sure agree entirely with Carsen in how he sees it as functioning:
"Memory is selective and impressionistic. We start and end each scene seemingly with nothing onstage, because that's what your mind does when you go from one memory to another – what you're remembering is an emotional response."

To me, the fades to grey evoked film and television, a technological gimmick, rather than anything organic, but my disconnect with Carsen on that point bridged what could have become considerable gaps between the production's approach and the text as created by Pushkin and adapted by Tchaikovsky and Shilovsky.

To create the literal autumn in which Onegin and Tatyana meet, and the events of Onegin's tragedy are set in motion, half a dozen bare, grey trunks, branchless are lowered downstage, flush up against the proscenium arch, and the leaves cover the entire stage. Olga and Tatyana's singing is offstage while Madame Larina and Filipyevna are seated at a wooden table downstage right, listening as they jointly prepare food for the meal to come.

Their table is framed by two widely spaced trunks, whereas the rest of the trunks are set much closer together at stage left. The unequal spacing creates spaces appropriate to Olga and Lensky's open, sanctioned courting, as well as to Tatyana's bookish detachment from the harvest festivities and her walk with Onegin.

The more closely spaced trunks also create the impression of time passing at uneven rates. (Again, I'm not sure that the design team intended it that way, but to me, it evoked frames of a film, flicking by faster and faster.) For me, this was a subtle reminder of Onegin's role as narrator (or generator, in memory) of the story. In his memory—or in the narrative he's telling himself—he has to reconcile rejection of Tatyana by the Onegin of youth with the longing for her and all she represents by Onegin in his later life.

Even considering that this is an opera, Tatyana's headlong rush from shy, romantic wallflower to bold writer of impassioned love letters in the space of an afternoon walk is a whiplash-inducing event. It can be an especially hard sell when that transition simultaneously must be believable as a young girl's unwitting jig on the precipice of reputational ruin and as a young woman's first glimmerings of true, passionate love that should have been. That sense—that time lags, then leaps forward in fits and starts, that hearts, and minds, and characters, might suddenly blossom and mature in what seems like a moment—helped to make the production's vision of the story work for me.

And the production's vision of the story turned out to be integral to my enjoyment of the opera. As enamored of the set as I was in Act I, scene i, I was gearing up to appreciate the visuals and the performances on their own merits, because the music was . . . well . . . kind of ugly. Tatyana and Olga's offstage duet is tuneful enough, but ponderous (they are, after all, novices practicing their music). When Madame Larina and Filipyevna join in, the content of their conversation is intriguing enough (Madame Larina's playing hard to get, then eventually marrying her husband and living a happy, if dull, life), but the quartet is heavy and thick. The peasant dance, rather than showing the bright side of life in the Russian countryside, is also a clodhopper, musically.

The music supporting the lovers' (Olga and Lensky) and would-be-lovers' (Tatyana and Onegin), which also serves to contrast our opposing models of manliness and womanhood, is at least interesting, if not especially pleasing to the ear. Nino Surguladze (Olga) has some noteworthy insights on her character's aria:
"Tchaikovsky gave Olga a lot more character than Pushkin did. . . . She's saying in her aria 'I'm so cute, everyone calls me a child,' but she sings it with low notes, and it can still be sexy! My Olga is chldish, but she knows how to manipulate men, and she also wants to be happy. The aria has has to be very light and joyful. It also should not be vulgar in the low notes – they must keep their light color."

Surguladze is true to this characterization of Olga in her vocal and dramatic performance, and the blocking, pacing, and give-and-take between her and Frank Lopardo (Lensky), very nearly pull it off, but musically, there's not a lot of sparkle.

Shengold is kinder than I to the music of scene i:
"To operagoers weaned on verismo, the first scene's music can seem 'unoperatic.' A two-minute minor key prelude based on hauntingly descending string lines [This is the pre-greyout music with Onegin alone, which I liked–Ed.] leads directly into the Larin sister's nostalgic offstage duet. . . . Both a rural and an elegiac tone has been set, only intensified by the subsequent choral call-and-response folk singing, starting with an unforgettable a cappella entrance by an offstage solo tenor."

I'll give him the tenor introduction to the folk dance, but other than that, a big meh to scene i, musically.

Seeing the scene as Onegin's creation, though, works dramatically, even it is doomed, aurally speaking, to be crushed under its own weight. The Onegin of the present still has his prejudices against life in the provinces. His realizations about the emptiness of his psuedo-Byronic life don't extend to a Levin-esque fetish for the countryside as a whole. Present-day Onegin retains some understanding of and tastes with past Onegin and, in memory, he gives his younger self a pass on some events. The partial, uneven maturation of Onegin's character this reading implies is unusual in opera and, to me, appealing. And the good news is that things pick up, musically speaking, considerably, after scene i.

Scene ii is the "letter scene"—a long stretch of beautiful, challenging music for Tatyana, with brief relief pitching at the beginning and end by Filipyevna. The set of her bedroom is contained within a lighted square, swept free of the surrounding leaves. In the upstage right corner of this light-bounded room is her bed with a painted hope chest at its foot and a night stand with a basin, pitcher, and gas lamp to the left of it. Diagonally opposite the bed is her writing desk, and a rocking chair sits in the upstage left corner. Books are appropriately scattered throughout the room, and the floor is layered with odd-sized rugs, except for a large, bare, square of the trap door leading down into the rest of the house. It's an odd and appropriate mixture of the silly and the serious, the girlish and the womanly. It works just about 100% of the time, and the brief moment of failure to work—when Tatyana breaks through the boundary of the room to frolic in the surrounding leaves—may not apply to those less literally minded than myself. (I couldn't help but fear for her falling from what is clearly the attic of the house to her death, or at least severe maiming, on the grounds.)

Some of what I perceived as musical rough patches early on in the letter were probably hangover from the sodden tones of scene i. There are also some phrases that are tonal twins of bits from the "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies," stripped of their tinkling, staccato elements. It's no fault of Tchaikovsky's that I have long since had enough of The Nutcracker to last me a lifetime. But things get good quickly. In particular, there's some beautiful disagreement going on in the winds. The clarinet (or oboe? Please, like I would know) maintains this sinuous, climbing melody while the flute starts out shrill above it and descends in jarringly wide intervals, but the two—Tatyana the girl and Tatyana the woman—ultimately meet. It's musically and dramatically lovely, and it's tantalizingly missing from Onegin's reprise of the theme in Act III.

For scene iii, we're back in the land of Onegin's circle. The scene opens a dozen peasant women engaging in good-natured sparring with their besoms as they sweep outward from the square of Tatyana's bedroom to create a much larger circle of cleared space among the leaves. This is the setting for Onegin's rejection of Tatyana, with the warm afternoon lighting of the first scene gone, and the cold, bare white of the floor (Onegin's world) forcing the inviting colors (Tatyana's world) to the edges of the stage.

Musically, scene iii slaps the audience in the face, just as Tatyana is dramatically sent reeling by Onegin's bloodless, patronizing rejection. Pompous brass seems to dominate, but underneath, there's a lot of swooping and swirling of the strings around one another, until they finally meet up in something curiously seductive. Again, the production's reading of these scenes as pieced together in Onegin's memory is born out in the conflicting musical moods. The cold, blasting brass is how the audience receives Onegin (and how the part of him that reviles his younger self must see him), but the strings remind us that Tatyana is not the type of woman to either love or let go so easily, and she is still drawn to him.

Act II continues to play with the theme of worlds within worlds and scenes that memory sets allegorically. Tatyana's name-day cotillion takes place within the confines of a square bordered by all the mismatched chairs of the Larina household. Although larger than Tatyana's bedroom, the "ballroom" leaves a considerable chunk of the stage unused. (Of course, this is all in contrast to the beautifully matched, decadently upholstered chairs set around the very borders of the stage to sketch the outlines of the ballroom in Prince Gremin's palace in Act III.) It's homely and quaint and comfortable—the best the countryside has to offer its favorite daughter.

Both scenes of Act II are a hard sell as Onegin's mental constructions. The action takes place several months after his rejection of Tatyana, but we don't really know why he's still there, if he despises the country as much as he seems to. And the country has had time to despise him right back. From the libretto in scene i:
How sorry one is for Tanya!

He'll marry her …

… and then play the tyrant!
Thy say he's a gambler!
Onegin, passing, overhears the conversation.
He’s dreadfully uncouth, his behaviour's quite mad,
he won't kiss the ladies' hands,
he’s a freemason, he drinks
only red wine - by the tumblerful!

Onegin's response is to blame Levsky and punish him by flirting with Olga. Um . . . what? As Shengold points out, the rising action to the climax of Lensky's death by duel is uninspiring (and, frankly, unconvincing) at least partly because Tchaikovsky seems to have seen Lensky in a different light than Pushkin:
"Much has been made of the coincidence in time of Tchaikovsky's disastrous marriage with his work on Onegin; but this portrait of the vulnerable, impressionable Tatyana surely draws on the feelings of his hapless bride, Antonina – and indeed his own distress – about the hopeless venture towards conformity. Lensky's magnificent aria of resigned melancholy, in which he contemplates his fate before the duel, falls in to the category of a lament (traditional for Russian opera). Unlike Pushkin, who saw for Lensky a domestic, bourgeois future, the composer took seriously Lensky's German Romanticism-fueled estimate of himself as a talented young poet, and the opera is probably more affecting for that."

I agree that it's more affecting. Not for all the world would I sacrifice really feeling for and mourning Lensky all through that gorgeous aria.

But it's hard to sell the depth and breadth that Tschaikovsky gives to Lensky as the creation of the same mind that has not softened one whit its judgement of the frumpy, stuffy, mismatched landscape of the countryside. Likewise, the Onegin of Act II is so heartless, so actively cold in using Olga and then so erratic, one moment feigning surprise that Lensky is taking things so seriously, and the next coldly accepting Lensky's challenge to duel and ignoring any of the ways out that are offered. It's a strange version of events to be taken as the product of Onegin's mind.

Perhaps that's why I thought the only minor stumbles in staging occurred in Act II, bleeding into III. The duel takes place on an absolutely bare stage. Lensky waits downstage right and takes his position for the duel upstage center. The men's overcoats provide their marks in keeping with tradition. Onegin is downstage center. The lighting is low, and only Lensky's silhouette, with pistol raised, is really visible throughout the build-up. It's not even clear until the very last second that Onegin is holding a pistol, as he adopts a much more casual stance.

As Lensky falls, the upstage wall is lit in an arc at its base, presumably representing the sun as it rises a moment after the life leaves him. Perhaps a fine idea in concept, but in execution it looks a little goofy, as though they've buried him and there's an impressive hummock accommodating his belly.

I did like the pointed lack of the grey out at this point, despite the fact that we're moving between acts. Especially given how alienated the audience feels from Onegin in this moment, the fact that his own memory will not allow him to lower the curtain on Lensky's death is an important point of reconnection. Impeccably clothed serving men arrive on stage to carry Lensky away and retrieve the overcoats (a nice conflation of body and object, stage business and burial, that works well). A second set arrives carrying the chairs that will outline Prince Gremin's ballrom, and a great deal of choreographed business goes into placing them just so. A third set first brings Onegin a pitcher and basin in which to wash his hands (a little on the nose, I thought), then helps him into his evening clothes for the ball.

The knots of patterns and colors crowded on to Madame Larina's dance floor are replaced by carefully spaced groups of dancers in shimmering black, purple, and deep red. Unfortunately, there are no production photos that highlight the contrasts, but it was impressive costuming, the highlight of which is, of course, Tatyana's entrance in the kind of regal sophisticated finery Onegin only wishes he could imagine. The gown is key, but so is Tatyana's bearing throughout. She moves through the maze of her guests, clearly charming them with her sincerity and dignity, all the while tamping down the inner chaos stirred up by seeing Onegin again.

In the final scene, it is Tatyana who is seated in the chair, surrounded by the narrow circle that hemmed in Onegin at the opera's beginning, only without benefit of the warm, retrospectively fond colors of memory (except as they appear in the shawl she wears and casually leaves draped over the bone-white and gilt chair; it's a nice touch as it's a richer, more sumptuous version of the shawl she hides behind in Act I). The stage is otherwise absolutely bare. Mostly, I was so knocked out by the music and the performances that I didn't give this set much thought. In retrospect, I didn't quite drink the kool-aid, and I note that the barely visible borders of the panels covering the floor, together with the white-on-white joins of floor and walls give it a kind of rubber-room feel that I'm not fond of.

And speaking of performances, every single person in this production knocks it out of the park. Dmitri Hvorostovsky's voice and presence are so striking that it's a mere trifle to be repelled by, terrified of, fascinated by, and in love with him all at the same time. He hardly needs the superb costuming to take him through the paces of a character that can be read either as experiencing real transformation or merely going through the motions.

The production designers seem to espouse the former attitude, as does Mariusz Kwiecien, who'll be playing Onegin from March 17 through the end of the run:
"Onegin is a role where I can really develop: I start out being so cool and aristocratic, then become more human, and at the end I show my whole soul and love to Tatyana, growing to the last incredible duet. At the beginning, people should hate Onegin – he's so conservative, without a sense of humor. Then, at the end, they should both hate him for what he's done in the first act [I pass over this implication that dissing Tatyana is worse than murdering Lensky.–Ed.] and feel pity for him losing the most beautiful thing in his life."

In contrast to this view, Shengold goes directly to Pushkin's text for help in reading the title character:
"In a scene where Tatyana visits Onegin's library after his post-duel departure for Europe, Pushkin makes clear that the girl discovers that Onegin's 'fascinating' social poses are just a pale reflection of the Byronic heroes that he's read about. Tchaikovsky's making his baritone parrot the soprano's love music is similarly undermining, suggesting that Onegin can only experience a mere imitation of passion."

Hvorostovsky's blurb doesn't add much to the debate, although he compares Onegin to Don Giovanni in terms of a character that can be read in a broad number of ways. But to return to what we're given on stage, Hvorostovsky is selling the genuine passion. (Can it be a coincidence that the 20% of the production photos are devoted to that duet?)

My opinion of Dina Kuznetsovna has been steadily growing, and it's gratifying to see her shine so in such a substantial role as Tatyana. Her voice, always excellent, has grown better and better each time I've seen her. Neither her role in Vixen nor in Rigoletto really show off her dramatic chops (I'm sorry, Gilda's a beautiful musical role, but she's such a drip) in the way that Tatyana does. That must be why I never, until Tatyana, realized how huge, beautiful, and expressive her eyes are. Her heart projects to the second balcony every second.

The audience's response to Nino Surguladze was a little reserved, which I don't think is entirely fair. Although Tchaikovsky gives Olga more than Pushkin, he still doesn't give her a lot, and he gives her almost nothing in the way of the beautiful music that comes later. I loved her acting and liked her voice more than enough that I want to see her in a role that's vocally kinder.

Frank Lopardo played off Surguladze's Olga beautifully. Furthermore, he was very much at home as the German transplant into Russian literature. He simply slayed me (and the rest of the audience, judging from the curtain calls) with the Act II aria. (And you know that I have unusual resistance to tenors.)

In the same breath as Lopardo, I have to mention Vitalji Kowaljow as Prince Gremin. Tschaikovsky was definitely into the funny brownies when he gave the bass the classic A-B-A aria, and the performer has a lot to pull off within it. As Shengold quite rightly points out:
"His mood and situation could not be in greater contrast to the bored, rootless and (hitherto) loveless Onegin; but the aria also establishes the nature of Tatyana's marital ties; it reveals what she would harm and lose by giving into to Onegin's tardy return of her youthful passion."

Wherever one comes down on Onegin, the audience must believe that Tatyana's marriage is a happy, if offbeat, one. Kowaljow brought down the house, building from a quiet calm to real fire and coming back home again. A really moving performance for a character that, literally, has only that moment to convey himself.

I liked Catherine Wyn-Rogers significantly more as Filipyevna than I did when she snuck up behind me as Sosostris. She gets a lot of mileage out of her everyservant role as Madame Larin's friend, Tatyana's Nanny and confidant. Likewise, I feel like Marie Plette (Madame Larina) has more to her than is evident in this role. I'll be happy to see them both again in the future.

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