Eugene Onegin — Royal Opera House

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Last Wednesday, Dec 30, I went to see Eugene Onegin, by Tchaikovsky, a wonderful opera, with divine music. I had already heard it, of course, but I re-discovered it, and fell in love with it again. The story comes from a novel by Pushkin, so for once it’s not the usual absurd baroque plot, or the corny nineteen hundred soppy tale. It’s a Romantic story, with capital R. You can find a synopsis here.

I went to hear Hvorostovsky, who, besides being a wonderful baritone, is also Russian, so I had great expectations, hearing him in his own mother tongue, in a role that suits him so well. I was not disappointed. Onegin_dima His voice is still powerful and smooth as I remembered it, and, in his own mother language, the interpretation is even more emotional and enthralling. At 53, he’s still very handsome, and his Onegin comes onto the stage as a perfect dandy, mature, cynical, charismatic and charming. It’s no surprise that Tatyana falls for him. In the scene where he refuses her, and also in the dance and the duel scene, his voice is technically perfect, confident and aloof, not very emotional, full of arrogance and disdain for the whole world. The transformation in the third act is overwhelming, and the wave of feelings sweeps him and us away. In the last scene you always hope that this time Tatyana will say “yes”, but I never hoped as much as in this performance.

The third act’s arioso, especially the attack of the melody supporting the words “yes, it’s true, I’m in love”, was surprisingly violent, and it conveyed very strong emotions. In the video, a version from an old times great voice: Evgeny Belov.

After only a few scenes after the beginning of the performance, I realized in horror that I was watching the production described to me by a friend a couple of years ago. The idea is not terrible: the whole story happens as a remembrance by Onegin and Tatyana, who recall the events of their youth after they parted forever. This sometimes is represented in a “normal” way: the singers play the young characters. But in other occasions, alas, the singers are the older characters, and they sing while observing the scene, while the two young lads are played by two dancers, who jump happily hither and thither.

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The letter

Two observations: 1. all these dancing shenanigans don’t add anything at all, and 2. they distract the audience, they divert the attention away from the music.

This is particularly annoying in the letter scene, where the dancer puts a lot of effort to interpret Tatyana’s agitation due to her amorous and erotic passion, which are already perfectly expressed by the music. In this way, the music becomes the background of a boring and silly dance. Note to opera directors: TRUST THE MUSIC. “Do” less and listen more.

The duel between Lensky and Onegin happens between the singer Lensky and the dancer Onegin, the young Onegin, while the singer Onegin sings remembering the scene and getting drunk. After the duel, and Lensky’s death, immediately starts the polonaise, the opening of the third act (in the video the wonderful version by Abbado). During this music, instead of watching a magnificent ball in a splendid St. Petersburg’s palace, as the libretto would have you, you admire the dancer Onegin enjoying debauchery and heavy drinking, Onegin_polonaisein the arms of several young ladies, while Hvorostovsky, the older Onegin, watches in contempt.

OK, you killed your friend and then you spend years trying to forget about it by acting as a degenerate. We get it.

Lensky’s corpse remains on stage for the whole third act, to symbolize the event which ended up marking and ruining Onegin’s life. In the last scenes, he’s really a mean drunk.

The Royal Opera House orchestra was as good as ever. Precise and exciting, with a special mention for the brass section, very enjoyable. The conductor Semyon Bychkov, also Russian, supported the singers and was very convincing, except for a somehow subdued polonaise, but maybe it was the effect of the boring dancing on stage. I really liked the chorus, even if it doesn’t sing very memorable parts: the first chorus, the chorus of the peasants, is frankly embarrassing from a musical point of view.

And now to the other singers.

Tatyana was Nicole Car, an Australian soprano only 30 years old. Her voice is BEAUTIFUL. Very smooth and round, with the right amount of darkness, and a very good technique, her instrument lacks a bit of chest voice, and the result is slightly monotonous. She gave a great performance, in my opinion, even if, as I was saying, the lower register is a bit lacking. She has a very young look, and this makes her a perfect Tatyana, very credible. Both the main characters were perfect, from a physical point of view, and this helps. In the letter scene she gave everything, and she even managed to steal a bit of the stage from the dancer strutting about.

Olga, the silly sister, was Oksana Volkova, from Belarus, with a typical Slavic mezzo voice, but in the “good” variant. Quite a bit of metal, good chest voice, and a perfect passaggio. I noticed that when she moves from the chest to the head register, she puts the sound exactly in her “mask” – in maschera – shoving the notes in her gigantic Slavic cheekbones, and in this way the voice “turns” very naturally, without jumps or harshness. Great!

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Lensky and Olga

The young American tenor Michael Fabiano, singing the character of Lensky, was a revelation! I really liked him: a full, beautiful voice, strong, perfect technique, and a great actor. He was also perfectly casted from a physical point of view, and he sang his aria right before the duel in a masterful way, gaining long applause. By the way, I noticed that the text of this aria is almost identical to Tombe degli avi miei, in Lucia di Lammermoor: I’m about to fight in a duel, I’ll probably get killed, will my cruel loved one come and visit my grave? This was probably a Romantic topos.

The minor characters were also extremely good: the two mezzos Diana Montague and Catherine Wyn-Rogers, as Madame Larina and Filippevna, mother and nurse of Tatyana, respectively, were both very good, perfect in the part, really good voices. Jean-Paul Fouchécourt, whom I had already seen as Basilio in Le nozze di Figaro, was monsieur Triquet, and he seemed again very funny to me. A very good character singer/actor.

I kept a gem as my last comment. Prince Gremin was Ferruccio Furlanetto! As you may know, this character sings only one thing, which is the opera’s most beautiful aria (here you hear Boris Christoff’s interpretation) and Furlanetto did it wonderfully, with his voice still big and remarkable, at 67 years old. Bravissimo! And a pleasant surprise, I hadn’t noticed his name in the cast (I’m an idiot), and I was stunned.

Great Onegin!

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