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S & H International Opera/Festival Review

Tchaikovsky, Eugene Onegin, The Kirov Opera of the Mariinsky Theatre. Metropolitan Opera House, New York, July 26th, 2003 (BH)

Music Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Libretto based on the poem by Alexander Pushkin
Conductor Tugan Sokhiev
Stage Directors Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier
Set Designer Christian Fenouillat
Costume Designer Agostino Cavalca
Lighting Designer Christoph Forey
Chorus Master Andrei Petrenko
Vocal Coach Irina Sobolieva
Met Titles Cori Ellison

Orchestra and Chorus of the Mariinsky Theatre

Cast
Tatiana Irina Mataeva
Olga, her sister Ekaterina Semenchuk
Madame Larina, their mother Svetlana Volkova
Filippyevna, Tatiana's nurse Olga Markova-Mikhailenko
Lenski, Olga's fiance Yevgeny Akimov
Eugene Onegin Vassily Gerello
A captain Mikhail Petrenko
Triquet Vladimir Felenchak
Zaretski Mikhail Petrenko
Prince Gremin Mikhail Kit
 

The production of Eugene Onegin is a co-production of the Mariinsky Theatre and the Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris.  World premiere March 17, 1879, Imperial Theatre, with students from the Moscow Conservatory; first professional performance January 23, 181, Bolshoi Theater, Moscow; premiere of this production, August 14, 2002, Mariinsky Theatre.




In this final evening of the Kirov Opera's distinguished festival stay, conductor Tugan Sokhiev showed that Maestro Gergiev -- marvelous as he is -- is not the only asset this glorious ensemble has at its disposal. With a sensitively wrought and heavenly well-sung Eugene Onegin, Sokhiev brought the companyís three-week residency to a stirring close.  

As Tatiana, Irena Mataeva was arguably the finest singer I heard in the companyís offerings (and Iím sorry I missed her in one of the Semyon Kotko performances).  She received a huge ovation following the famous 'Letter Scene,' which combined her lustrous voice with a youthful impetuousness, really acting the part.  Vassily Gerello as Onegin was also superb -- forceful and vivacious, but also lost in thought, distant, slightly unknowable.  He, too, seemed acutely poised and comfortable onstage, every movement invested with purpose. And as Lenski, Yvgeny Akimov also received one of the night's big cheers, after his touchingly intimate reflections before the duel that ends Act II.

This piece could not have been more different from Semyon Kotko or The Invisible City of Kitezh but what all three shared was a keen attention to stage business; there was never a wasted hand movement or any of those long strolls to nowhere that some directors employ to give the cast something to do.  Placing Tatianaís bed next to a wall meant that she could writhe against it, amplifying her frustration. When Lenskiís and Oneginís bodies subtly turned away from each other at their final meeting, the slight motion carried unexpected impact.  This consummate attention to the whole left no doubt that this was opera.

I'm still unconvinced by the set: a series of bland, cream-colored panels on either side of the stage, framing a center area that changed with each scene.  The opening tableau featured a grove of thick trees in the middle, and in the last act, a ghostly blue Cinderella-esque coach appeared, as if to murmur, "Onegin, timeís up."  In the final scene, the panels framed a midnight-blue sky with silvery clouds, making an icy background for his inscrutability and loss.

When the curtain rose, my mind perceived the walls as concrete blocks, like some sort of sterile public housing, and later I wondered why the director and set designer didnít just go ahead and push it all the way -- and do a housing project.  Overall, however, the elegant coolness here was not as effective as the Met's recent and even starker production of the same opera.  I am a huge advocate of a "less is more" aesthetic, but minimalism that resounds is often more difficult to achieve than it appears.

Further acknowledging the companyís high standards, other staging decisions seemed uninspired, such as the famous ballroom sequence. Here it was presented glimpsed through a doorway, with the elegant Kirov dancers passing back and forth in the room beyond.  Regardless of the directorís intent, the dancers were so utterly marvelous that I ached to see a larger slice of their work.

But back to the music, which won over most of us in the end.  What more can be said about the terrific musicians of the Kirov Orchestra? All evening Tchaikovsky's graceful score dipped and nodded as beautifully as the Kirov dancers.  The principal horn simply outdid himself in many solos, and many of the woodwind passages -- especially the oboe -- seemed as alluring and haunting as anything the composer has done.  Overall, Sokhiev's relative sobriety only enhanced the scoreís introspection, and the audience seemed entranced.  If he seemed to lose his grip briefly in some of the large crowd scenes -- near the end, the faster vocal parts sounded just a little ragged -- it might have just been a bit of cumulative fatigue on the part of the otherwise excellent chorus, since the company had just completed Verdi's Macbeth that afternoon.  

But any criticism must be decisively offset with enormous enthusiasm, not only for this production but also for the companyís entire visit. Having these artists here has been invigorating, not to mention quite a bit less costly than a trip to St. Petersburg.  Beginning with unusual repertory, they brought their ubiquitous (for good reason) star conductor, plus several others who deserve their due, and a small galaxy of memorable singers who are virtually unknown in the United States.  Then they added a cadre of creative minds with some unusual, often riveting ideas about how to stage these works for contemporary audiences, and finally, there was the orchestra -- a group that on most nights really does perform as well as any on the planet today.  As the curtain fell on Tchaikovskyís masterpiece, I could only agree with a friend who sighed, "Let's hope they come back soon."

Bruce Hodges

 

 

 


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