This year’s live relays of New York Met performances have a markedly Slav flavour, with Shostakovich’s rare The Nose next up, and later Dvorak’s Rusalka and, most interestingly, Borodin’s Prince Igor. It kicked off with Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, the most popular though not the finest of his operas. On the first night there were sustained protests both outside and inside the Met, against the Putin crony Valery Gergiev and against Anna Netrebko, a supporter of the plutocrat dictator. Odd that there aren’t more protests, when you think that people still get heated and even write books about musicians who stayed in the Third Reich, often acting courageously. There were no protests, alas, before the matinée that was broadcast. The production has had its own troubles, with the original director, Deborah Warner, withdrawing through illness, and Fiona Shaw taking over. There weren’t any particular signs that anyone was producing, actually. The sets are puzzling and, worse, take a long time to move, so that there were substantial, momentum-draining gaps between each of Tchaikovsky’s seven scenes, and the familiar sight for the cinema audience of stagehands moving cumbersome props around, while Deborah Voigt asked the performers what the opera means to them, etc. Those pauses, combined with Gergiev’s strangely cumbersome reading of the score, made for a lengthy performance of what, after all, is an opera Tchaikovsky wrote for students, almost a chamber piece. Gergiev said, when interviewed, that the Polonaise should be grand, but in his reading it wasn’t, just turgid. Most perversely, he took the great Letter Scene with such lengthy pauses that the feverishly mounting tension was drained, and Tatiana’s worries about what she should write were replaced by the impression that she was fighting sleepiness.
The usual trouble with Onegin is that the Letter Scene, being the most moving in the entire opera, makes the rest seem an anti-climax, the major flaw being the composer’s utter lack of sympathy with Onegin. In this performance, thanks to the extraordinary acting and singing of Mariusz Kwiecien in the title role, the balance of interest and even of concern was for once moved from her to him. Anna Netrebko, not helped by Gergiev’s accompaniment, and now looking at least twice Tatiana’s age of 17 (not helped, either, by a bedless bedroom), is moving into heavier repertoire than she has been used to, and her voice has thickened as well as rounding out, so her portrayal made the heroine seem less vulnerable than she is intended to be.
In the third scene, where Onegin has received her letter and gives Tatiana a little talking-to about how young they are, how unprepared for an LTR, he seemed wholly in the right, not heavy-handed or cruel, and one felt a small wave of relief that what would have been a desperately ill-advised union was aborted.
Throughout, Kwiecien played Onegin as sympathetically as possible, and for once the final scene, in which the tables are partially turned — Tatiana admits that she loves him, but has now become the realistic one — was, despite the relatively feeble musical inventiveness, dramatically cogent, and Onegin’s pain was something we could share. His only major defect is his then fashionable ennui, and if Tatiana’s refusal has disturbed that, she has done him a good turn. Piotr Beczala’s Lenski was an almost-too-powerful vocal presence, though his spectacles assured us that he would be a loser in love. The duel scene was the best I’ve seen, though the acting verged on the sentimental. Onegin has received some rough treatment recently, and I hope, whatever its faults, this production will restore its position as a work that is both straightforward and subtle.
OperaUpClose, at the King’s Head, Islington, began most successfully four years ago with La bohème, and though it has never managed to do anything to equal that, it remains adventurous, now commissioning operas, with Two Caravans, music composed by Guy Harries and libretto by Ace McCarron, based on the novel by Marina Lewycka, entering its repertoire. This is the kind of thing that one expects to see at the Hammersmith Studios done by Tête-à-Tête, a company that has the wisdom to commission short pieces, so that composers who are relatively inexperienced in operatic composition don’t have to write something that fills an evening.
Though Two Caravans only fills a short evening, it would be more effective if it were about 40 minutes long, since Harries’s music, played by a piano and flute, with a momentary accordian, does become tedious in its semi-minimalism, though it has the odd blossoming lyrical passage that makes you crave more. The opera is about immigrant strawberry pickers and a vile exploitative boss, and has some humour and some pathos, but too much that is nothing in particular. Everything is mimed except the consumption of strawberries, a nice tease for the audience. The often vertiginous action on a narrow strip is impressively choreographed; but in this small reverberant space the singers sound too monotonously loud, and their vocal weaknesses are magnified. The one who emerges with distinction is Peter Brathwaite, who is also an accomplished actor.
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