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An absorbing production

Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
04/02/2008 -  and 6, 10, 12, 15, 18, 24, 26, 30 April
P.I. Tchaikowsky: Eugene Onegin
Brett Polegato (Onegin), Giselle Allen (Tatyana), Daniil Shtoda (Lensky), Alexander Kisselev (Gremin), Allyson McHardy (Olga), Barbara Dever (Filipyevna), Vivian Tierney (Madame Larina), Ryland Davies (Monsieur Triquet), Cornelis Opthof (Zaretsky), Andrew Stewart (a Captain)
Canadian Opera Company Chorus, Sandra Horst (Chorus Master), Canadian Opera Company Orchestra, Sir Richard Armstrong (Conductor), Derek Bate (Conductor - 24, 26 30 April)
Enrico De Feo (Director), Marco Arturo Marelli (Set and Lighting Designer), Bettina Walter (Costume Designer), Allison Grant (Choreographer), Wendy Greenwood (Associate Lighting Designer)

The Canadian Opera Company’s new Eugene Onegin is a very attractive production that could benefit from a refinement of its focus. Director Enrico De Feo (using Marco Arturo Marelli’s 2003 production from France’s Opéra national du Rhin) has the title character on stage at all times. Onegin is obviously re-living, with great regret, the incidents that led up to his final state of anguish.

The curtain rises on a striking expressionistic set, with swooping floor, angled walls, oversize doors, and a backcloth on which naturalistic projections denote different scenes. The effect is a combination of Dali and Magritte. Before the overture begins we see a couple (who we later learn are the Prince and Princess Gremin) pass by a second man, who turns out to be Onegin. He remains on stage watching the Larin household as the opera proper begins.

The opening scene, where the sisters Tatyana and Olga, sing a plaintive song about love while their mother reminisces about her youth with the nurse, Filipyevna, establishes the rural milieu which Onegin finds so boring. We hear the peasants sing offstage. Regrettably, part of the scene is cut, namely the lively chorus Across the bridge, the little bridge, and with it the presentation of flowers to Mme Larina. A program note tells us that Konstantin Stanislavsky made this cut back in 1922 and this seems to be the justification. One cannot help but suspect a budgetary reason: the cut helps keep the running time below three hours and avoids the cost of outfitting the chorus in what would be a third set of costumes. The COC is a marvel of cost-effectiveness in many ways, but some decisions lower the enjoyment level to a grievous degree. Eugene Onegin is not a sprawling work in dire need of trimming, and clipping this chorus impoverishes the opening scene. Moments later, when Olga spontaneously bursts into a phrase form the missing number, it lacks the resonance it ought to have.

Back to the central directorial device: at first I thought it was rather interesting having Onegin always present and reliving the past like the character in Our Town. However, it became clear in the letter-writing scene, where Tatyana gets to establish herself as one of opera’s fully-realized characters, that his constant presence is obnoxiously intrusive; for example, at one point she lies down on her bed (more like a futon) and Onegin lies down beside her. The device amounts to overkill. Onegin has the opera’s dramatic concluding lines (Shame! Misery! O my miserable fate!) which Brett Polegato delivers with vehemence, but since we’ve been witnessing his distress all evening, the ending becomes an anti-climax.

This is Polegato’s first Onegin and is yet another solid achievement for him, both vocally and dramatically. He is not a scenery-chewer by inclination, but follows the director’s concept nonetheless.

Giselle Allen has a lovely voice and is certainly more than adequate for the role of Tatyana. She is, however, less than stellar, and perhaps could have used some of the directorial attention lavished on Onegin. She plays the gawky adolescent so well I began to suspect she is really like that, but her metamorphosis into the assured Princess Gremin proves she is not.

Daniil Shtoda has exactly the right tone for Lensky but could use more volume. His declaration of love for Olga and angry challenge to Onegin do not have the required impact. His soliloquy before the duel, when he has the stage (almost) to himself, brings him into focus. His acting of the role is spot-on.

One other directorial innovation: in the duel, Lensky throws his gun to the ground, runs to Onegin and embraces him, meanwhile seizing Onegin’s hand and forcing him to fire his gun. His death is thus more of a suicide, not that this lessens Onegin’s remorse to any degree.

The single intermission occurs between the Larin party scene (normally the first scene of the second act) and the duel. Thus the ballroom scene, which supposedly occurs some years later, directly follows the duel, and the first half of the polonaise accompanies Onegin’s repeated attempts to act out his own suicide in repetitious Russian roulette. Then the Gremins’ guests enter like prancing phantoms, in contrast to the more realistic earlier dancing of the waltz and mazurka at Mme Larina’s party.

Alexander Kisselev is a first-rate Gremin who gives us a finely-modulated rendering of his great aria (I’m glad Stanislavsky didn’t cut this ) Barbara Dever’s Filipyevna is a wonderful instance of luxury casting, and Allyson McHardy does fine work as the feckless Olga. Ditto Vivian Tierney as the mother who has knowingly traded happiness for habit. Veteran tenor (and former Lensky) Ryland Davies makes the most of Monsieur Triquet’s vignette. Another experienced singer is Cornelis Opthof as Zaretsky. He made his COC debut in 1959 - would that all singers his age were in such robust vocal state.

The orchestra and chorus under Sir Richard Armstrong meet our high expectations.

The directorial innovations in this production are tame compared with the mauling this work can get in places where regietheater rules (for example, I’ve seen Peter Konwitschny’s production in Bratislava, where the emphasis is on drunkenness). Still, more attention paid to the dramatic trajectory each character follows in Tchaikovsky’s original scheme would improve this otherwise vital and attractive production.

Michael Johnson



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