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A sublime melancholy

State Theater
04/16/2014 -  & April 26*, 30, May 3, 9, 2014
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin, opus 24
Nicole Car (Tatyana), Paulo Szot (Onegin), James Egglestone (Lensky), Sian Pendry (Olga), Daniel Sumegi (Gremin), Dominica Matthews (Mme Larina), Jacqueline Dark (Filippyevna), Kanen Breen (Monsieur Triquet), Adrian Tamburini (Zaretsky), Jonathan McCauley (Captain), Emily Ranford (Young Tatyana), Sam Colbey (Young Onegin)
Opera Australia Chorus, Anthony Hunt (Chorus Master), Orchestra Victoria, Guillaume Tourniaire (Conductor)
Kasper Holten (Director), Mia Stensgaard (Set Designer), Katrina Lindsay (Costume Designer), Wolfgang Goebbel (Lighting Designer), Signe Fabricus (Choreographer)

S. Colbey & E. Ranford (© Jeff Busby)

As Tatyana, Nicole Car is a revelation. The Melbourne soprano made her major role debut only five years ago and now as Tchaikovsky’s tortured heroine, delivers real insight into the depths of emotion and idealism in her character. Her voice is variously described as “honeyed” and “beautifully lyric”; for me it was luminescent. She transfixed the audience in the letter writing scene using a range which stretches from richly-hued lows to dazzling brilliance in the upper register with a surety of pitch which made the whole performance seem easy and entirely natural. It was as if we were given insight into exactly what Pushkin and Tchaikovsky may have been thinking as they variously penned the role. Nicole Car is as good an actor as she is a singer and she made excellent use of the superb stage directions to shed light upon her character as a real woman. We left the theatre in no doubt that Nicole Car is a star on the rise.

Kasper Holten’s staging of Eugene Onegin is a co-production of the Royal Opera House, and Teatro Regio, Turin. It premiered in London in 2012 and came to Opera Australia earlier this year in Sydney. It is a gorgeously realized re-imagining of the plot told in flashbacks. Dancers portray the younger Tatyana and Onegin and the older (singing) characters often look on with gestures and expressions which deepen our understanding of the text and the music. The Letter and Duel scenes stand out: we see Tatyana now as Princess Gremin trying to comfort her anguished younger self as she writes her love letter and later, we see the older world-weary Onegin cringe with disgust at his younger self shooting Lensky. These scenes are rich in nuance and add immensely to the telling of the story. For that is the clear purpose of this production: to tell us in as much detail as possible of the lives and times of these characters.

Acclaimed Brazilian baritone Paulo Szot is riveting as Onegin. His resonant voice has an intensity which commands attention. It is light and buoyant but plunges to darkness and threat with the same apparent ease as Nicole Car performs and in this sense, they are beautifully matched. Mr. Szot too is an outstanding actor and it is the subtle ‘stage business’ he incorporates into his portrayal which gives us empathy for Onegin. We see beyond the façade of the jaded St. Petersburg intellectual to a real man, trapped by his personality into behaviour which he will forever regret. Mr. Szot’s delivery of the self-rebuking “I have trifled too thoughtlessly” during the argument with Lensky is telling: we are witness to another, softer, more emotionally aware Onegin, a stark contrast to the rural simplicity in which he has so fatefully meddled. Paulo Szot’s is a wonderful performance, rich in shading and glorious in voice.

Sian Pendry is an excellent Olga. Her versatile voice and innate stage awareness gave this character as many shades of meaning as the two leading roles. She is entirely believable as the star-struck naive younger sister and is poignantly oblivious to her inappropriate behavior encouraging Onegin’s flirting at the ball. Seeing the bigger picture, we can only look on with dismay at the implications of their conduct.

As Lensky, James Egglestone is totally plausible. He has a fine tenor voice which captured convincingly his character’s love for Olga. His rendition of the love poem in the first scene rings entirely true. We are in no doubt that this man worships the girl and this makes his reaction to the events leading up to the duel totally compelling.

Dominica Matthews as Madame Larina, replete with never empty glass of red wine, is perfect as the provincial, over-bearing, penny-counting mother; as struck by Onegin’s sophistication as Tatyana. Ms. Matthews is an outstanding mezzo who performs a wide range of roles for Opera Australia and again proves herself an invaluable asset to any staging. She made the most of every opportunity to breathe life into her character; notably during the argument leading to Lensky’s challenge: she grips the now distraught Olga who is close to collapsing and fleeing in tears, and through strained smiles and physical force, upholds the family’s dignity amid the crowds of gossips and scandal-mongers.

Conductor Guillaume Tourniaire drew from Orchestra Victoria a restrained and subtle performance. They never invaded the domain of the singers and yet sustained and augmented the drama throughout. From the mournfully descending notes of the introduction to the calamitous ending, they were wonderful. They are a superb ensemble led by a great talent who won the hearts of the Melbourne audience when he bowed down before Nicole Car as she brought him on for the curtain calls. Opera Australia’s Chorus are in fine voice. Their Russian folk songs speak eloquently of the bucolic setting and their snide gossip during the ball adds tension and weight to that scene.

It is rare to attend a performance where everything works so well – the singers are equally good actors; the direction adds substance and meaning to the text; the settings and costumes heighten our understanding. Opera Australia delivers a stunning production with this Eugene Onegin.

Gregory Pritchard



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