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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Eugene OneginLyrical scenes in three acts (1878)
Libretto by Tchaikovsky and Shilovsky after the novel by Pushkin
Onegin played by Michal Docolomansky: sung by Bernd Weikl (baritone)
Tatyana played by Magdalena Vasaryova: sung by Teresa Kubiak (soprano)
Lensky played by Emil Horvath: sung by Stuart Burrows (tenor)
Olga played by Kamila Magalova: sung by Julia Hamari (mezzo)
Gremin played by Premsyl Koci: sung by Nicolai Ghiaurov (bass)
John Alldis Choir
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
Sir Georg Solti
Filmed by Petr Weigl c. 1988
DECCA 071 124-9 [117 minutes]
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There seem to be two basic approaches to the filming of opera. The most common and, to my mind, most successful, is to film actually in the opera house, whether live or without the audience. Even with technical inadequacies, what we generally get is a true record of a genuine production, with singers caught on the wing and a feeling of experiencing the opera where it was meant to be. The other approach, much less common, is to make a true feature film, complete with exotic locations and, where needed, a cast of thousands. This method can have patchy results, particularly when the cast have to mime to a soundtrack. At its best (say in the Losey Don Giovanni or Zefirelli La Traviata) there is an epic sweep that serves the piece well, and there is no hint of tiredness in voices that one might get in the theatre. The syncronisation of voices is always a problem, but at least the cast are usually miming to their own voices, which is where the problems in this Eugene Onegin really start.

Petr Weigl chose to go on location to Prague and its magnificent surrounding countryside, and make a true ‘film’ of Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece. He misses out the prelude (considered unnecessary and reduced to a caption over the music) and starts with a grand, panning vista, the peasant chorus emerging from the distance. This is fine until the principal characters have their opening entries. In Weigl’s film, all are actors, and it has to be said they all look the part, particularly the women, who are stunning. As soon as they open their mouths, the whole thing becomes virtually unwatchable. Whatever attempt was made to match in to Solti’s famous Covent Garden recording was simply not good enough. Time and again, lip movements do not match the singing and, more seriously, the emotions of the singers’ performances are completely undermined. Take Tatyana’s famous letter scene. It is filmed in a sumptuous interior, with camera gently following her and closing in on facial expressions. But she simply mouths the words with no emotion (or rather her own, not the singer’s), and the great climax, with Kubiak’s soaring soprano declaiming passionately, is played by the actress with her head buried down in the paper! Likewise, Lensky’s melancholy aria before his duel is set in a stunning Bergmanesque ‘snowscape’, but the actor simply does not convince us he is singing Stuart Burrows’s part.

I guess all this may bother some less than me. I certainly would not want to see ‘ham miming’ to opera singing, but Weigl has obviously gone for a sort of laid back, method approach with his actors that might work in a play but does not square at all with what we are hearing. The whole thing looks great, with predictable panache in the ballroom scenes and magnificent locations, but this approach to the filming of opera was doomed from the start without real singers and their own soundtrack. This Onegin is good to look at, and great to listen to, but not both. My advice would be to just listen to the Solti discs and wait for a ‘proper’ production to come out on DVD.

Tony Haywood

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