Moscow on the Hudson
I love Russian opera! The plots, the drama, the characters, the music — anything and everything Russian, except borscht. This makes me doubly glad for old recordings, which I owned and borrowed with a good deal of frequency. I made sure I listened attentively to classic opera albums, in addition to radio programs such as George Jellinek’s The Vocal Scene on WQXR-FM, a show devoted to the lyric art.
In today’s hi-tech world, Blu-ray Discs and DVDs, in addition to the ubiquitous YouTube, Met Opera on Demand, digital downloads, and other online services have replaced the LP and compact disc. This has made access to Russian works more available than ever. As a result, one can hear and see these marvelous scores performed by an array of native artists, even if they seldom make the rounds of neighborhood theaters.
And what diverse scores they are, too: take Prokofiev’s mammoth epic War and Peace, Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh, the restored Prince Igor by Borodin, or any of Tchaikovsky’s oeuvre, for example, The Enchantress and Iolanta. Why they took so long to come our way is beyond our comprehension. One explanation may have been that the operatic art in the Soviet Union — and particularly, with Stalin in control — felt imprisoned behind the grim wall of the Iron Curtain. We are indeed fortunate today to be able to appreciate these fabulous works anew and at close range.
For such a lovely piece as Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, which premiered in 1879 and whose gorgeous solos, lively dance tunes, and rousing choral numbers have been repertory staples for any number of years, it comes as no surprise that the opera reached our British cousins (in 1892) long before it hit our shores. When it finally arrived in North America in 1908, it was presented in concert at Manhattan’s Carnegie Hall. At that time, New Yorkers heard the opera in English.
A later Tchaikovsky work, The Queen of Spades (sung in German), had a brief 1910 run at the Old Met. It was the company’s first full-length Russian excursion. Onegin only made its mark there in 1920, in an Italian translation headed by a miscast Giuseppe de Luca in the title role, Claudia Muzio as Tatyana, and Giovanni Martinelli as Lensky. The conductor, Artur Bodansky, unwisely insisted that cuts be made to the score. As you can imagine, the opera was not well received, with the largely Mediterranean cast coming in for a critical drubbing.
The work re-emerged at the Metropolitan in 1957, in an English-language production conducted by Dimitri Mitropoulos that featured George London, Lucine Amara, and the young Richard Tucker in principal roles. It was given in the original Russian sometime in the late 1970s. With that in mind, Canadian director Robert Carsen’s evocative 1997 staging proved a particular favorite with the public, especially in the Met’s 2007 revival consisting of American soprano Renée Fleming as a regal Tatyana, silver-maned baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky as an authentically-flavored Onegin, and Mexican tenor Ramón Vargas as the sympathetic Lensky.
The most recent incarnation of the work, Deborah Warner’s 2013 Met opening-night extravaganza, was directed by Fiona Shaw and starred Russian diva Anna Netrebko, Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien, and fellow countryman Pyotr Beczala — a real slice of Slavic pie — with Muscovite maestro Valery Gergiev presiding. For my review of that performance, see the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2014/02/09/die-fledermaus-eugene-onegin-and-lelisir-damore-tragedy-tomorrow-comedy-tonight-a-triple-threat-at-the-met/.
Given its “special intimate qualities” and psychological focus on post-pubescent love, the composer himself considered Eugene Onegin to be unperformable in the theater (imagine that!), preferring instead that it be given in concert — which was how North Carolina Opera presented it.
All’s Fair in Love, War and Peace
Some works are no better than the conventions they flaunt. However, there is nothing conventional about Eugene Onegin. There may be much of what might be called “operatic,” i.e., the opening pastoral, a dramatic duet, lengthy scenes for soprano, tenor, and bass, an arioso each for mezzo and baritone, and a powerful ensemble. However, if the sum of the whole failed to equal its parts, then it’s the manner in which Tchaikovsky has structured these parts that made the opera unique among those in the Russian repertoire, one that plainly differentiates him from his compatriots. You can bet your babushka that any one of the “mighty fistful” would have given their last ruble for a work of Onegin’s skill.
By lacing his opera with an array of symphonic elements, Tchaikovsky took a profoundly literary subject (Pushkin’s poem in verse) and transformed it into a viable stage vehicle (“Lyric Scenes” was how he phrased it). Thus, the opera was conceived as a concerto for orchestra: three acts (or movements) involving one of the core emotions: passion, regret, and despair. Elements of all three are present in each of the acts.
If there is one overriding theme associated with Eugene Onegin, then that theme is passion, easily the most pervasive of the three emotions cited above. Though Onegin is the title character, the focus is fittingly on Tatyana. Passionate and headstrong at the start, she’s not as obstinate in her pursuit of passion as Natasha Rostova, her “counterpart,” more or less, in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, written ten years prior. Granted, both women are inexperienced in the adult world, yet Tatyana is not so naive as to be completely taken in by Onegin’s air.
A willful, self-absorbed fellow, Onegin catches the eye of the impressionable Tatyana, who imagines him to be the man of her dreams, a proverbial Prince Charming sent to sweep her off her feet. Foolish girl! We know that charm is not an attribute one normally associates with Onegin. However, it’s not his charm that she admires, but her ideal of what a man should be, with its basis formed on the books she has read. Cold, disillusioned, emotionally distant, and unnecessarily straightforward in his speech and actions, if not in his manner, Onegin is only slightly less “charming” than, say, Andrei Bolkonsky from the same War and Peace.
Likewise, Onegin is not so much a scoundrel as Anatole Kuragin, Natasha’s would-be seducer. To be fair, Onegin mustn’t take all of the blame for the way Tatyana has fallen hard for him. In Pushkin’s poem, Tatyana is unapologetically idealistic as well as addicted to romance novels, which is how her romantic nature evolved. One suspects she is more of a “romantic realist,” someone who has quixotic notions about love, but the good sense not to be physically carried away by it (unlike the severely smitten Natasha).
On the other hand, Tatyana’s younger sister Olga has no such inclinations. She just wants to have fun, which explains why she’s easily distracted by Onegin’s obvious flattery. We learn, in the course of the drama, that words do indeed matter: they have consequences, albeit tragic ones. What one declares in private should remain private (that is, Tatyana’s confession of love to Onegin, a man she just met); what one professes in public (Lensky’s outrage at Onegin’s flirtation with Olga) can have an irreversible effect on one’s life.
Never Put It in Writing
Already there is maturity and strength in a girl who does not shy away from her compulsion to confront and, ergo, express her inner-most longings on paper. Tatyana eventually owns up to her error, and in the final analysis — and this is her most notable trait — she does not make the same mistake twice. She rejects Onegin’s advances, knowing full well, as noted in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (see the link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2013/08/24/from-verdis-violetta-to-tolstoys-anna-karenina-part-three-two-fallen-sisters-under-the-skin-a-vodka-tonic-with-a-slice-of-shepherds-pie/), that as long as she conducts herself with discretion, taking on a lover is no impediment to marriage with an older man such as Gremin.
Be that as it may, Tatyana is cognizant of her position in Russian society as the respectable wife of one who has the Czar’s ear. Knowing this, she opts for stability and security, instead of risking it all on an individual who previously had spurned her. The result: the tables are turned on our titular non-hero. Prior to this, Tatyana’s first serious expression of feelings toward Onegin is in letter form, wherein she bares her soul to an unworthy recipient. Think of this as the nineteenth-century equivalent of e-mail: once you hit that “send” button, there’s no turning back (even digitally, it seems).
Her psychological shifts and rapid mood swings are indicated in Tchaikovsky’s masterly orchestration, primarily in the Letter Scene, the beating heart of the work. The first statement (a rising theme) is sounded in the oboe, which is then picked up by the flute, reinforced by the clarinet, and echoed by the French horn; to which the composer inserts a coda in the plucking of the harp — his way of illustrating, in musical terms, Tatyana’s placing of a period at the end of each of her sentences, or possibly a momentary pause for reflection.
The scene itself is divided into three parts or sections, mirroring the opera’s own construction. In the first section, we hear Tatyana’s mounting exhilaration and anticipation of declaring her love prior to writing about it; in the second, the actual business of writing down her thoughts; dissatisfied with the results, she tears up the letter and, in the final section, muses to herself as to whether Onegin is her “guardian angel” or her “fatal tempter.”
It’s in this portion that Tchaikovsky provides us with one of his loveliest, most sentimental melodies. Interestingly, he repeats the opening exhilaration theme near the end of the opera, when Onegin, having rediscovered the now married and mature Tatyana, realizes he has fallen desperately in love with her. With that, he communicates his desire to see her in the exact same theme she herself had voiced early on.
By the time the Nurse is summoned to deliver her letter to Onegin, Tatyana has undergone every emotion a young girl can experience, including the three previously mentioned. An amazingly accurate delineation of the physical and mental process of creative self-expression, this symphonically conceived episode rivals the best of Verdi and Wagner (whom Tchaikovsky detested), to say nothing of Puccini and Strauss, wherein the orchestra carries the substance and weight of the developing drama, much as in, say, Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande.
And to think that Tchaikovsky’s opus appeared in 1879, a full seven years before La Bohème bowed in Turin, and almost a quarter century prior to the disastrous La Scala appearance of Madama Butterfly. We must also mention Massenet’s Werther (written in 1887; premiered in 1892), which is based on the poet Goethe’s novel and boasts of its own characteristic Letter Scene for the heroine, Charlotte.
A “Concerted” Effort
Just as there are artists willing to take on the challenge of opera in Russian, there is an infinite variety of ways to interpret Tchaikovsky’s iconic characters. And North Carolina Opera’s lone January 24th concert of Eugene Onegin was one that did the composer proud. Though it lacked a final dress rehearsal due to the influx of wintry weather in the region (hardly of Siberian proportions, it must be admitted), it nonetheless boasted some stellar performances in just about every role, beginning with that of the conductor.
Maestro Timothy Myers led another of his outstanding conducting assignments with an exemplary reading of Tchaikovsky’s sonorous score: full of throbbing intensity and passionate urgency in the strings, as well as achingly penetrating woodwinds coupled with an explosive temperament in the brass. As indicated earlier, unbridled passion was the theme for the entire two-and-a-half hour concert. All the artists involved took part in making the drama as thoroughly believable for our times as humanly possible.
The strings pulsated with vibrancy and intimacy in equal measure, literally brimming over with torrents of pent up emotion. And kudos to concertmaster Carol Chung, who anchored the first violin section. But the guiding light of this concert was, first and foremost, Myers’ steady hand at the helm, along with that of chorus master Charles MacLeod who sang the walk-on part of the Captain. The orchestra, positioned on the Meymandi Concert Hall platform for maximum impact, sounded as luxuriant as ever; while thrilling in climaxes and in revelatory quiet passages, at times it overpowered the singers, principally during the massed ensemble that concludes scene i of Act II.
Act III got off to a rousing start with Myers and the NCO Orchestra’s lilting account of the Polonaise. This was commanding music-making done in the grand manner. Accenting the pomp and ceremony of the occasion, Myers and the musicians excelled in stressing the sheer lushness of the piece, sweeping the audience along. At one point, I half expected some of the players to jump off the stage and dance the mazurka for us (not happening).
The bleakness of the introduction to Act II, scene ii, menacingly articulated in the orchestra, foreshadows the poet Lensky’s impending death. It should be mentioned that NCO’s oboist and clarinet players had a field day: both orchestra members were outstanding, as were the flutes and trombones, and of course the ever-present strings. The cellos and double basses fairly growled in ominous accompaniment, firmly grounding the poet’s sentiments in a grim re-enactment of his despondency.
The chorus must be singled out for its faultless intonation and (as far as these ears could tell) genuinely reliable Russian, thanks to diction coach Olga Uzun. It may not have been up to Bolshoi standards, but it was good enough to convey the peasants’ song at the start. In addition, a word of praise for Joseph Ittoop as the Peasant. With his flowing white beard and bushy brows, one of the chorus members stuck out for his remarkable likeness to author Leo Tolstoy — a “novel” touch, I should add. In sum, all the participants immersed themselves in the Russian style: of parties, balls, gowns, and dances, with counts and countesses, dukes and duchesses from the elite of Russian society, whose chief mode of communication was French.
Speaking of which, one of the guests at Tatyana’s ball was Monsieur Triquet. A tad self-satisfied, even senile and infirm, Triquet can be crotchety and ill-tempered, or simply vain and debonair. Jason Ferrante, the fine character tenor who took on this cameo assignment, used a combination of suavity and sophistication, with the attitude of one who has seen it all at any number of soirees. Ferrante’s graceful delivery of the couplets was a welcome divertissement from the drama to come. And true to the time, Triquet’s couplets were indeed sung in French, as they would have been at the Imperial Court of St. Petersburg or, in this case, at Madame Larina’s country estate.
Playing for Keeps
The most difficult assignment of the afternoon was taken by the raven-haired, Canadian-Lebanese soprano Joyce El-Khoury as Tatyana. Ms. El-Khoury held the audience spellbound with her rivetingly acted and brilliantly sung Letter Scene. The character’s fluctuating emotional states were reflected back in Joyce’s well-thought out interpolation. She encompassed every aspect of Tatyana’s shifting tides of emotion: from joyful elation, to crushing disappointment and ultimately resignation.
There was a conscious effort on her part at holding back, of words emanating from her throat only after considerable thought was given as to their effect. Hers was a more studied traversal of the part than usual, not so much girlish as on the cusp of womanhood. Unlike past exponents of the role, this Tatyana was for the most part in control of her faculties, though there were times when one felt her resolve weakening. Yet, her farewell to Onegin, along with her triumphant cry of “Let God decide” in the Act I Letter Scene, were El-Khoury’s most revelatory moments where the emotional element was released and finally exposed for all to see.
She resisted every temptation to turn Tatyana into a poor man’s Natasha. Her pain was palpable at Onegin’s initial rejection. And the top of her voice rang out brazenly at the end, a clarion dismissal of his “too little, too late” assertion of undying love — a love that could never be. Because of her earlier restraint, El-Khoury’s cries were all the more convincing, even with the lack of scenery and costumes.
Props were sparingly utilized, for example, Tatyana and Onegin’s letters to each other, chairs for the individual participants, and a pair of realistic-looking dueling pistols. Needless to say, Joyce’s Tatyana was an absolute triumph.
As Onegin, Korean baritone Joo Won Kang, short of stature but big of voice, conveyed the title character’s flaws through his person. Mr. Kang wore his conceit on his sleeve, in a manner of speaking, yet was capable of maintaining that calculated air of an aristocrat, up until the moment Onegin realized that Tatyana had grown more desirable with marriage to another man. He resolves to possess her at any cost, only to be let down. Kang was properly devastated at the end with his protracted cry of despair.
Although he was no match for the finest exponents of this part — chiefly, Armenian baritone Pavel Lisitsian, and the Russians Yuri Mazurok and Dmitri Hvorostovsky, to name a few (what singer could possibly hope to surpass these names?), Kang’s diction was more than adequate. His tone was properly centered throughout, albeit compact yet with a solid midrange. The voice was evenly produced up and down the scale. The top notes were there, but they were not overly emphatic, which made his performance choices that much closer to the protagonist’s natural reserve.
For that exhilarating confrontation with Tatyana, Kang threw caution to the winds and let it all hang out: he physically dropped to his knees before her, practically begging the girl to accept his advances. Too late, he rushed from the stage in a manic fury, his dejection an open wound. This was one of the more satisfying portrayals of Onegin this author has encountered. Kang got a huge round of applause at the end, winning the audience’s approval when he appeared for his bow. Both he and El-Khoury got the lion’s share of acclaim, next to the aforementioned Myers.
Jealousy, That Green-Eyed Monster!
Eric Barry’s plaintively voiced Lensky was a joy to listen to. The impetuous, hot-headed poet, whose love for Olga, Tatyana’s strong-willed sister, oversteps the bounds of decency when he allows his jealousy to get the better of him, became second nature to this rapidly maturing artist. Barry was fully up to the demands not only of the role’s dramatic outbursts (his challenge to Onegin was at once deadly serious), but of Lensky’s meditative side as well.
His softly shaded singing was most pleasurable to the ear in the haunting aria, “Kuda, kuda” (“Where have my golden years gone?”). Incidentally, Barry was the only male singer who performed with his suit jacket unbuttoned at the front, which would seem to indicate the independent nature of this highly volatile individual. That’s total role immersion for you!
Russian tenors come in several guises and grades: soft and gentle, loud and brash, bold and brilliant. Mr. Barry took on a little of each, showing his sensitivity in the Sergei Lemeshev or Leonid Sobinov mold, and the bolder, brasher aspects of Dmitri Smirnov, Ivan Kozlovsky, and Vladimir Atlantov.
Zanda Švēde, a stunningly attractive mezzo from Latvia (and a budding starlet to boot), was Olga. A real find and the result of NCO’s ability to pick the right singer for the right part, Zanda sang Olga with creamy tone, completely embracing the girl’s allure and boundless joie de vivre, particularly in her opening arioso. She played the “party girl” to perfection, as if to the manner born. Tall, slim, and stylishly dressed in a smart emerald-green gown, Zanda convincingly captured Olga’s flirtatiousness by economy of means and by the simplest of gestures. Despite the handicap of being placed before the orchestra, Zanda maintained her composure all through the concert, and her infectious exuberance was spot-on. The future looks bright for this talented young artist!
It is Olga who captures Onegin’s roving eye in Act II, if only to distract himself from the tedium and to get back at Lensky for having dragged him to Tatyana’s birthday bash. (Note: Russians celebrate their name day, which can often be the feast day of their patron saint.) As the chorus gossips about Onegin behind his back, he catches bits and pieces of their insults and decides to act in what he believes is a non-confrontational manner. As we know, he’s wrong on all counts. Even though this was a concert performance, the singers Barry, Švēde and Kang performed their portions of the program flawlessly and, I must admit, persuasively. Bravi tutti!
Two veteran mezzo-sopranos, North Carolina’s own “Dixie Diva” Victoria Livengood, and Robynne Redmon, covered the lower-voiced female contingent, putting in yeoman work as the Nurse Filippyevna (Livengood), who worries over Tatyana’s feverish pining for attention, and as Madame Larina (Redmon), the two sisters’ mother. Both artists brought a rich chest voice and plenty of stage presence to their parts, with Livengood’s recollection of the Nurses’ first love and subsequent marriage to another man a highlight. They each brought style and class to the proceedings.
Additionally, it was fascinating to watch this seasoned pair seated at one side of the stage, while on the opposite end the two younger women, Olga and Tatyana, sat apart from them. In twenty or thirty years, El-Khoury and Švēde may one day also find themselves facing younger colleagues. By then, we expect they might still be singing and acting up a storm, and (hopefully) passing on knowledge of their own craft to the next generation of artists.
The tall and distinguished Kenneth Kellogg made an eloquent Prince Gremin, his deep bass voice resounding throughout Meymandi Hall as if wrapped in velvet. Gremin is the one who gets Tatyana’s hand in marriage, perhaps on the rebound from her disastrous attempt to pique Onegin’s interest; certainly, after his killing of Lensky in Act II — realistically portrayed, by the way, with a fine contribution from Charles Hyland as Zaretsky, the poet’s second.
Kellogg’s voice reminded me of the late Bulgarian basso Boris Christoff. He does need to work on his Russian diction skills, however. In time he may become a good enough Boris Godunov, or even Pimen, to follow in his illustrious predecessor’s footsteps. As for Gremin, this was strictly a one-off: he steps up to the plate, sings his aria extolling the virtues of the dutiful Tatyana, then goes off arm-in-arm with his spouse. Not the most rewarding role in the repertoire, but one that Kellogg filled quite nicely.
Several of the artists engaged for Eugene Onegin have previously sung with North Carolina Opera. Ms. El-Khoury has appeared in NCO’s production of Rusalka, Mr. Barry sang Rodolfo in the company’s La Bohème, and Mr. Kang played the elder Germont in last season’s La Traviata. He is also scheduled to sing Figaro in the upcoming The Barber of Seville. Considering how he handled Onegin, I for one am looking forward to that venture.
With respect to Russian opera as a whole, and to this performance in particular, I reached the conclusion that NCO needs more of this kind of cultural programming. Here are a few worthy successors: The Queen of Spades and Iolanta, or Boris Godunov (if only in concert form). One should also take Prince Igor, Sadko, or possibly Ruslan and Lyudmila into consideration as well. There is a rich vein to be mined from this repertoire, and the rewards are many. Who knows? Perhaps Prokofiev’s setting of War and Peace will beckon someday… someday….
Mind you, none of these works are “easy” to stage, but any one of them would make a welcome addition to North Carolina Opera’s season, just as Onegin turned out to be. All that’s required are a dramatic tenor, a star baritone or two, a potent-voiced soprano, a few booming basses, some seasoned and/or aspiring contraltos, and presto! You have the makings of a winning combination — with maestro Myers in command, of course.
We may even get to see that longed-for Russian winter. To that I say: Na zdorovya!
Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes