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Last Saturday I saw the magical Robert Lepage (& team) production of "Le Damnation de Faust" in an HD broadcast, a production that took a non-opera of scenes and mold them into a coherent whole in many non-conventional and creative ways. For that I was somewhat prepared, having read the advanced articles and publicity, as well as the vitriol of many opera goers who posted their own reviews outside the mainstream medium.

I was not prepared, however, to knocked aground by a conventional production of "Eugene Onegin" by Vancouver Opera Tuesday night. In the program notes, musician Nicolas Krusek wrote,

Eugene Onegin" is the most intimate of all Tchaikovwky's operas...Tchaikovsky focuses on the thoughts and feelings of his characters, presenting them as real human beings rather than melodramatic charicatures. His approach is refreshingly free of conventional operatic histrionics and his music is marked by frequent touches of deep psychological sensitivity.

Some of Tchaikovsky's friends and colleagues were intially skeptical about his choice of subject, feeling that Pushkin's story was not theatrical enough to be successful onstage.

Based on the productions I'd seen before this, and most recordings I've heard, I did not recognize this description of the opera. If anything, I'd found the singing and the approach almost over-the-top in passion, and experienced passion (the exception being the mostly youthful cast I heard in 2005 at the Bolshoi), to the point of nearly bursting in the final scene, the epitome being the Galina Vishnevskaya/Georg Ots recording.

To my shock Vancouver Opera's production fit Krusek's description of it, and if I had one word to describe it, I'd call it Canadian in temperament. I don't know of any Russian opera lovers who would have found it recognizable, apart from, maybe St. Petersburg native and clear audience favorite Oleg Balashov's Lensky, and then only in the second act. Like in Wagner, the dialogue and the arias blended; it was difficult to tell where to applaud, and the entire production was, with the exception of the party/crowd scenes, conversational and intimate.

The young characters were young. In a directorial miss in the Party Scene, Onegin and Lensky go after each other after the duel challenge, only to be separated by other party guests, like hockey players by refs. (I don't believe that Onegin, a city sophisticate, would have participated in a fist fight.) Rhoslyn Jones' Tatyana didn't at the snap of a finger break into full-bodied passion in the letter scene. Yes, Onegin lit her flame, but her expression was of a girl who, deep in her books and thoughts, had never articulated these feelings before, and was trying them out and listening to herself voice them for the first time. Her voice has a sweetness that was poignant, and she showed the intelligence and native grace that would allow Tatyana to made a successful marriage in the city and to learn to become a princess, while all the while maintaining a freshness that made Prince Gremin recount his lucky stars in his beautiful third act aria.

Lensky is equally naive, although as a male, he is convinced that his adolescent feelings and rigid classifications are gospel. Lovely as his great aria "Kuda, kuda" is, I sympathize with Olga's attempt to teach him a lesson, and want to slap him and tell him to grow up. Jeesh. Norine Burgess' Madame Larina was not the usual country dumpling; instead she had a lot of stature in the Act II ball scene. At first, I thought she was, in her own way, a role model for Tatyana as princess, but Jones showed little of her bearing in Act III.

Brett Polegato has a beautiful, articulate voice with little vibrato. Although if he competed at Cardiff in 1995, he must be at least in his mid-30's, he was a convincing 26-year-old. My dilemma two days later is that I'm not sure if this was a good thing. If in no other place but the final act, I always expect pull-out-the-stops vocal fireworks, and neither he, until his final line, nor Jones did this. Polegato's Onegin in the final scene was a bit of a broken puppy, and it reminded me of Gelsey Kirkland's description of how Baryshnikov went into sad-boy-away-from-home-whose-mother-killed-himself mode as a seduction tactic. I know he can do passion: he wrenched more of it out of Gluck's "Iphigenie en Tauride" -- as Orest, and he was heart-breaking -- than he did out of Tchaikovsky.

Jonathan Darling's conducting was fantastic through the first two acts, taking the music at a relatively fast pace, with a lot of brightness in the orchestra, and with a driving pulse. In the Act III Palace Scene, a number of things went south. While he may have been attempting to depict the boredom and superficiality of St. Petersburg society by taking the color out of the orchestra and having it drag, the scene, with the exception of Gremin's aria, sung with warmth and resonant low notes by Peter Volpe -- a highlight -- was enervated. Dramatically, the act suffered from the transition from the duel scene to the ball scene -- the intermission was after the Act II Scene I party/confrontation scene and the Act II Scene 2 duel scene -- in which the trees lifted from the bare stage, replaced by the columns of Gremin's palace as Onegin walked upstage, where two servants helped him change his tail coat and dress for the ball. This is the one place in the opera where there were supposed to be years between the scenes, and the direction made it look like Onegin walked off from the duel, had himself dusted off, and went straight to a party, bypassing years of self-recrimination and wandering. The scene also included two of my least favorite things in opera productions: freezing the chorus into tableaus while the leads sing and murky lighting, in direct contrast to the fantastic lighting for the rest of the opera.

The sets by Neil Patel were superb, with autumnal trees in the opening and closing scenes in Act I and an intimate room for Tatyana in the Letter Scene, and a larger, but still intimate room for the final scene, inset into the stage. The lighting, which indicated time of day beautifully, was wonderful in all but the Palace Scene. The costumes by Patel were generally lovely, with a complementary color palate that was soothing to the eye, but the exception of the one that really mattered: while the fabric actually may have cost a fortune, Tatyana's dress in the Palace Scene, which should show her to glorious advantage, looked cheap and nouveau with it's sparkly, glittery, dance catalog texture, a dark blue miss with black satin opera gloves and a bright red hat (noted in the sung text).

The dance segments, danced by four couples, blended into the action, and all of the lead characters joined them in more dancing than is usually seen or expected of lead singers. The acting was fantastic throughout, with special kudos to Allyson McHardy, who can dance, as well as act and sing.

I'm still not sure what I think of the overall interpretation, but this production has me thinking still.


Two more performances, tonight and Saturday night at 7:30

According to the intro notes in the program, for next year's 50th anniversary season, Vancouver Opera will perform John Adams' "Nixon in China" ("in an exciting new production that will be part of the Cultural Olympiad"), and in October 2010, the world premiere of "Lillian Alling", with John Corigliano's "Ghosts of Versailles" scheduled for 2011-12; the Metropolitan Opera has canceled its revival of the opera for next season.

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It sounds like a quite a wonderful experience, Helene.

Your report reminded me of the Met production shown in simulcast 2 seasons ago (Hvorostovsky and Fleming, with Ramon Vargas as Lensky). The characters -- like the score itself -- had great intensity but not emotional flamboyance or stereotypical "Russian" emotionality. The whole thing, in spite of the large-screen presence of great stars in the main roles, came across surprisingly subtle as to character and finely tuned as to the social setting that forms each the person's choices.

How did Vancouver handle the final confrontation of Onegin and Tatiana, a scene which can unfortunately become overly dramatised?

It sounds like Vancouver got an awful lot right. I'd love to see the production you describe.

:wacko: When you were in Vancouver, did you learn anything more about the announced folding of Ballet British Columbia? Dirac's "Links" forum had a link to the story a couple of days ago:


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There wasn't anything more I could find about Ballet BC, and given what may happen, maybe no news is better news.

The great thing about the sets for both Tatyana's childhood room and her receiving room was that the sets created much smaller and more intimate spaces, and there wasn't a lot of room for the singers to fling themselves around. The final scene had a little more physical melodrama, with Onegin on his knees next to Tatyana on her sofa, but the only part that was a little over the top was when Onegin ran out at the end, knocking over a chair. Polegato made it seem deliberate, but that may have been a great save.

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