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Two Operas with Russian Connection: Eugene Onegin and Andrea Chenier

Two interesting experiences of opera viewing happened to me in December 2017, both of them reflecting different angles and various media channels that opera could use to get closer to its potential audiences. It is no longer, it seems, an elite experience with expensive tickets, gowns and tails, but instead it lives in off-West End theatres and is brought to London cinema screens. The broadcasts of operas become something to what opera aficionados get accustomed to. Since one cannot travel to New York to attend Metropolitan Opera or to Milan to visit Teatro alla Scala, and since the tickets are sometimes extremely expensive, a very practical option is to book a ticket for your nearest cinema and watch this production on the screen. While the Royal Opera House has been doing many broadcasts in the recent years, other opera houses of the world have been taking notice of this example and have joined in. Thus, on December 28, 2017 Barbican showed the broadcast of December 7, 2017 recording of Umberto Giordano’s Andrea Chenier conducted by Ricardo Chailly and directed by Mario Martone. The Russian diva Anna Netrebko and her Azerbaijani husband Yusif Eyvazov were starring.

The production of the opera that was first performed here, in La Scala, in 1896 and takes the viewer back to the times of French Revolution, is directed by Mario Martone and staged by a set designer Margherita Palli truthfully to the period. It does not allow itself to venture into contemporary clothes or avant-garde stage directions. The creative team has reproduced the house of countess de Coigny in first act using guilded mirrors and high ceilings, with the costume designer Ursula Patzak bringing in wigs and 18th century clothes to create the atmosphere of aristocratic stiffness which reigned before the Revolution. Then the scene changes and Pont Neuf, beautifully lit by the moon, becomes the setting for meeting of the protagonist Andrea Chenier (Eyvazov) and Maddalena Coigny (Netrebko) who asks for his help and falls in love with him. From this point on, the production does not drown in details of interior design so much and develops some very wise ideas. Thus, the mirror in Carlo Gérard’s room (he is also in love with Maddalena) brings the distorted reflections and then suddenly becomes a street post with Chenier’s imminent trial advertised on it. The guillotine in the final scenes is lean and tall like Giotto’s Campanile and looks like a way to heaven for two lovers, while also resembling a giant hourglass with a limited number of grains left for Andrea and his lover.

Musically the production was also not very avant-garde and did not bring any surprises to fans of Netrebko and Eyvazov. They both sang powerfully and professionally, but they were not really acting their roles and did not always intone their melodic lines and long passages accurately, choosing force and power of voice over precision and nuanced delivery. Their meeting under Pont Neuf and especially their final scenes in prison were actually getting closer to the tragic beauty of two lovers stranded in a historic period requiring sacrifices. Eyvazov had a very nuanced aria which was accumulating its force gradually, and the duo excellently climbed through their final notes to the heights of their self-sacrifice and love amidst the revolutionary chaos. However, in preceding scenes one could feel that the pair was too satisfied with the sheer fact of being together on stage and co-starring in the production. Yes, it is good to witness how a loving couple plays a pair of tender lovers, but probably one needs more than that from such experienced and acclaimed performers, and sometimes the sheer power of voice delivery and a stage charisma (certainly possessed by Netrebko, but may be less so by very non-Chenier-like Eyvazov) are not strictly enough. It is Annalisa Stroppa playing Bersi and especially Luca Salsi playing Gérard who in a Tosca-like situation generously tries to save his rival who were much more impressive. They both used multi-faceted, well-intoned singing and good acting skills. Ricardo Chailly also impeccably conducted the opera with the grandeur required by the production and exquisitely rendered the dramatic journey of protagonists' fateful falls and rises as composed by Giordano who probably had Italian fight for independence in mind when he wrote the opera. When flowers, letters and colourful ribbons started to fall onto the stage, I had a sudden feeling of being in the stiff and posh setting of aristocratic France of the first act. Here the discrepancies of art and life were felt in practice, and it was quite soothing to find oneself in a modest cinema hall in the end.

Credits: Brescia e Amisano © Teatro alla Scala

Andrea Chenier at Teatro Alla Scala. Credits: Brescia e Amisano © Teatro alla Scala

The OperaUpClose production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin was quite at another end of the spectrum in this respect. Based on Pushkin’s (who, by coincidence, admired Chenier’s poetry) classic ‘novel in verse’, this opera could have also been done in a very conservative way, with singers performing famous Russian arias and moving through a Russian country house or acting out an aristocratic gathering with different measure of success. However, an award-winning touring opera company OperaUpClose was true to their unique style of re-imagined opera productions made with a simple design and only a few musicians. The creative team of director Lucy Bradley and musical director Sonia Ben-Santamaria have invited Alison Holford to do a new orchestration of famous music which would allow the use of only a piano, a violin, a cello and a clarinet. They have also used a new English version of libretto by Robin Norton Hale where the protagonists move from the 19th century Russia to the 21th century Britain.

As far as a new plot goes, we now have a British family with two daughters, a fight between Lensky and Onegin is done with the use of knives and in the end Tatyana becomes a famous writer (single, incidentally) and claims she wants to retain her independence. The last twist of the plot is not very persuasive and makes me wonder about the inherent drama of Tatyana’s love and Onegin’s newly-born interest in her, as one wants to exclaim: ‘What is the problem with you two?’. Otherwise, the reworking of the story and especially the English text (as there are no very strangely sounding and badly pronounced Russian words on stage now) works quite nicely and definitely brings the opera closer to home. It makes it more intimate, as well, with only several musicians telling us the musical story of the piece. The director and set designer (Rosanna Vize) have wisely organised a very small place of Arcola Theatre into action happening on two levels – on stage and in a mezzanine of the house on top of it, and this decisison actually enlivens the dynamics of the piece. The performers no longer stand and sing or walk and sing – they rather run and sing, lye in dream-like states and sing, observe the action or get involved in it and sing. Therefore, singing actually becomes quite natural and becomes part of their lives, not an imposed process of vocalizing Tchaikovsky’s score. This makes the combination of words and music tender, touching and very moving indeed.

The cast of singers supports the creative team’s ideas and delivers the vocal parts very well. Lucy Hall as Tatyana is tender and strong, melancholic and meditative, kind and independent – all depending on the situation. Hall shows her transformation very persuasively and is very good in the scenes where she communicated with her partners. However, she lacked nuance and pace in the development of her most anticipated appearance – Tatyana’s ‘letter’ aria. I could not follow the development of it clearly, and felt it consisted of several chunks of beautiful and powerful singing not glued up together by one idea. Lucy Hall also was not very convincing in the end when she sang about her striving for independence. Onegin (Felix Kemp) was, in my mind, more consistent, but less varied, than Tatyana, and was convincing as someone who at first veers towards a single man's freedom and regrets his former choice later. The production has the pair kissing when they just meet and conveys the sense of it being just a fling for Onegin, thus making the protagonist's decision more rooted in practices of 21st century. Cliff Zammit Stevens as Lensky stood out with his unrestrained passion and youthful maximalism all expressed in modern circumstances of a birthday party with plastic cups and canapes. However, in his famous pre-duel aria he actually stood on his knees and became extremely romantic, even slightly stepping out of the style of this show. Here the atmosphere has been created by artificial snow and darkness, which I think was more of a bow to usual settings of this scene than a decision coherent with this particular show, but still it worked powerfully. Caroline Daggett had to step in for Olga, and acted and sang her very well. After spending half an hour talking to singers after the performance, I felt that this piece has found a new place in my mind – I never realized how modern and internationally understandable a famous ‘Russian’ opera of unrequited love could be, and I was happy to discover its new facet in a wonderful production of OperaUpClose. This chamber version of Tchaikovsky's opera will tour different British cities in 2018, so don’t miss it if you can.

Eugene Onegin at OperaUpClose (Arcola Theatre) Credits: Andreas Grieger

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