Monday, May 25, 2015

Onegin, or Send in the Ballet Girls

Back to the Deutsche Oper, last night, for the third opera of my 2015 season: after Verdi and Rossini, Tschaikovsky. After a musically magnificent Don Carlo and a splendid sparkling Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Eugen Onegin. Quite a varied lot. All three operas, differing though they may be, did – on this occasion, at least – have one thing in common: all three featured the Canadian baritone Étienne Dupuis. He walked away with the honours as Rodrigo, set the stage alight as Figaro … now he was to be Onegin. Perhaps the toughest task of the three.

Why? Because, well, Onegin is quite frankly not a very attractive fellow. And he doesn’t have a ‘Per me giunta’ or a ‘Barbiere’ to sing, either. In fact, I find the entire opera of Eugen Onegin rather glum, gloomy and downbeat: only Olga and Prince Gremin seem like people you would enjoy knowing. Even for three hours. The whole thing reeks of the damp steppes of Russia. No matter how much whiteness and how many swanny ballerinas you fling on the stage.

This production is nearly twenty years old. I had the feeling it was more like fifty. Its style reminded me of the days, circa 1970, when I attended the dear old Nice Opéra (my local) each week. I’m not talking about size, nothing so lavish at Nice -- we only ran to a ‘ballet’ of, I think, five – just in the feel of the staging. But what do you do with an opera where everybody feels, talks, writes letters, but (apart from killing off a tenor) doesn’t actually do much. Send in the ballet girls, I suppose.

Dupuis played and sang the title character (you can’t call him the ‘hero’) with all the competence that one knew he would. But there was none of the tragic, ringing heroism of his Rodrigo and, obviously, none of the winning cockiness of his Figaro. The trouble was, they weren’t replaced with anything else. Not his fault. Onegin is, quite frankly, a bit of a bore.

His Tatiana, too, is not a particularly marked character. I know her ‘letter’ is famous, in Russian prose, but … she comes over as just another teary operatic heroine. Australian soprano Nicole Car was the Tatiana of the night – the Deutsche Oper must have a good Down Under branch: after Alexandra Hutton and Siobhan Stagg, this is the third Aussie prima donna I’ve seen here – but she hit the same problem. Sing as well as she might (and she did), Pushkin’s lady is hard to make attractive and interesting.

I got my main enjoyment elsewhere. Lenskj is a better role. He comes on, sings his very lovely aria, and gets shot. Yes! The tenor gone by half time. Gregory Vasiliev showed a bit of spunk in his acting, too, which livened things up. And then there is Prince Gremin. The bass. He doesn’t arrive till the second half; comes on, sings his very lovely aria and … 
I’ve always liked this aria. I even used to sing it myself, decades ago. Last night, I liked it better than ever, as sung by Ante Jerkunica. Grand voice, grand feeling, grand presentation … hurrah! Something for me to hurl my ‘bravos’ at, at the final curtain.

And I did. Because even if this – nay, any -- Eugen Onegin is not a jolly or dramatic evening out, the singers all did their job more than well …  and it is they whom one applauds. The writers won’t know if I cheer or (as I have been known to) boo.

Well, that leaves me with Bellini and Puccini before I zoom off to Australia … oh yes, spoiled for choice, we are, here …

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