A SUPERB EUGENE ONEGIN ADDS MOMENTUM TO THE 2018 VANCOUVER OPERA FESTIVAL
Tchaikovsky, EUGENE ONEGIN: Svetlana Aksenova (Tatyana), Carolyn Sproule (Olga), Leah Giselle Field (Madame Larina), Megan Latham (Filippyevna), Alexei Dolgov (Lensky), Konstantin Shushakov (Onegin), Peter Monaghan (Zaretsky/Captain Petrovich), Martin Renner Wallace (Monsieur Triquet), Goderdzi Janelidze (Prince Gremin). Vancouver Opera Orchestra, Jonathan Darlington (conductor), Vancouver Opera Chorus, Kinza Tyrrell (director), Tom Diamond (stage director), Scott Reid (set and projection designer), Harry Frehner (lighting designer), Parvin Mirhady (costume design consultant), Queen Elizabeth Theatre, April 29, 2018.
Eugene Onegin is the most loved of Russian operas. Based on a novel in verse by Pushkin—Russia’s own Shakespeare—Tchaikovsky’s presentation plays down some of the author’s satire and shifts the focus away from the eponymous hero and towards the heroine Tatyana. Tatyana begins as a teenaged country girl who opens her heart to the suave and egotistical young aristocrat, who condescendingly rejects her, only to be turned down by her at the end. Its sad lesson, summarized by her mother at the beginning of the work—‘Heaven sends us routine in place of happiness’—is shown through Tatyana’s sentimental education. What she learns is that the mores of her society do not allow the ardour of youth to blossom into the realm of adult life.
This rich and complex tapestry of characters in conflict calls forth a magnificent production from Vancouver Opera (coproduced with Calgary Opera). It is the best Onegin in my experience. From the conducting of Jonathan Darlington to the direction by Tom Diamond, the performance provided the deepest aesthetic and emotional satisfaction. It was a traditional production in the best sense: it respected—indeed honoured—the composer’s vision in terms of the meaning of the story and its emotional truth. It was set in the appropriate time, using apposite costumes, and the casting was uniformly strong, each singer-actor sitting comfortably in their role and looking their part.
Svetlana Aksenova as Tatyana was superb, with her lush soprano voice and splendid acting. Her letter scene was the best I’ve seen, though we must also give credit to the direction of Mr. Diamond, who made every gesture match the music and the actual writing of the letter convincing, which visually it often fails to be. Ms. Aksenova’s acting and singing poignantly conveyed the determination, ardency and ferment you would expect from an overexcited teenager writing her first love letter. She also navigated her transition to an urbane court figure convincingly, not overdoing the sophistication the years and her experience had brought to her. Her final scene with Onegin was heart-wrenching in her conflicted anguish.
Carolyn Sproule as Olga portrayed a delightfully high-spirited, superficial young woman whose idea in life is to have fun. Her acting was wonderfully natural. Even during the Act 1, Scene i folksong, she couldn’t stop swaying happily to the music. She sang in a lovely rounded mezzo voice that seemed made for her ebullient character. Alexei Dolgov’s Lensky was letter perfect, capturing Lensky’s combination of qualities: idealistic, posturing, insecure, self-pitying, fervent, well meaning. He was suitably smitten in the opening scene, convincingly agitated in the ball scene, and conveyed a moving mix of emotions in his Act 2 aria ‘Kuda, kuda, vï udalilis’, which he sang beautifully in a rich burnished tenor.
Konstantin Shushakov’s Onegin was perhaps a little stiff, which well enough suited his aloof disdain, and he was capable of nuance, as in Act 1, Scene ii, where his rejection of Tatyana conveyed a credible mixture of condescension and regret. Throughout, his firm baritone conveyed his sentiments strongly and persuasively. Nor did it hurt that he is dashing enough to turn a young girl’s head. Goderdzi Janelidze as Prince Gremin sang his elegant aria ‘Lyubvi vse vozrastï pokornï’ with great feeling in a virile bass voice, if at times rather too loud on the higher notes. He won enthusiastic applause for his performance, both immediately after his aria and in the curtain call at the end.
The orchestra and chorus were fully up to their task. Maestro Darlington brought out the textures of the score, true to Tchaikovsky’s Mozartian clarity of vocal line and orchestration. The chorus was sprightly when required, more subdued at other times, always adding to the sense of ambience and context that Tchaikovsky’s music so successfully conveys.
Tom Diamond’s direction, along with the sets by Scott Reid and lighting by Harry Frehner were (it might seem an odd word) immaculate. You felt the blocking and movements of the characters were just what the story needed, not more, not less. The action was always uncluttered and truthful. In his programme note, Mr. Diamond states that he and the team were trying to ‘suggest the time and place without an abundance of operatic trappings’. This is exactly what Tchaikovsky intended and why he ensured that the first production of the opera was a student production, without the kind of rhetoric that can encumber professional offerings. The sets were both minimalist and stunning, with lovely lines and supportive lighting, perfect for the action. In keeping with the visual beauty that was a hallmark of this production were the costumes designed by Parvin Mirhady—convincing us we were in the late 18th century and providing pleasure to the eye.
Especially interesting and gratifying were the between-the-scene projections by Scott Reid. Projected on the stage screen were brief silent videos of Onegin, played by Mr. Shushakov—thus bringing the focus of the opera back closer to him. Particularly telling was the projection before the final scene, where we see him writing a letter—a letter Tatyana is reading as the curtain goes up. This bookend effect reinforces his musical echo in the previous scene of Tatyana’s theme when she is writing her letter back in Act 1, Scene ii.
Altogether, this was a hugely rewarding Eugene Onegin – a truly memorable production, confirming just how great an opera this is.
© Harvey De Roo 2018
All photos by Tim Matheson