21 March 2014

Of class and custom

It was a revisit for Megan. She had attended Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin at the Bolshoi in Communist-era Moscow. This was EO performed by the Australian Opera at the Joan Sutherland Theatre, under the smaller of the sails at the Sydney Opera House. It’s similarly designed, but more intimate than the larger concert hall. We were seated in the very back row. We couldn’t see the surtitles, and we’d chosen this so could better concentrate on the music. Perhaps it was a poor decision. We’d read the plot, but this work went for over two hours and there were details that were just lost. The back row was also under a low roof, but the sound still seemed good, if not loud. At its peak, the stage with chorus had, perhaps, 50 singers, and the orchestra, in its pit, another 30 or more. I missed a large sound from strings, but this was nicely played nonetheless, with a small, almost a chamber, feeling. (Megan saw 4 basses which suggest as orchestra of ~50, but it didn’t sound so big to my ears). The voices, too, weren’t massive in the space, although in flight they filled the space with ease. It’s a strange story and very dated to modern ears (unless you follow period series or read Victoriana). Young Tatyana meets Eugene Onegin who has come to the country after the balls and sophistication of the big city. Tatyana sends love letter which Eugene rejects. At a ball shortly after, Eugene flirts with Olga, sister of Tatyana and fiancé to Eugene’s friend Lensky. Lensky takes offence, challenges to a duel and is killed (and remains on stage as a body for the rest of the performance). Twenty years pass. Onegin encounters Tatyana at a ball. She is now the wife of Prince Gremin. He expresses his love. She does also but refuses to leave the Prince. End. This takes over two hours, so the surtitles would have filled in some gaps. This version has young and old Tatyana and Onegin variously on stage together (unlike the Bolshoi which played it straight) but only the older incarnations sang. There are a few passages that even I recognised, a waltz that included singing by the chorus, and a mazurka. I am a novice in operas. I was surprised by applause after significant arias that interrupted the theatrical flow. I noticed the difference between attending music and opera, how one was theatre so required visuals; the other you could close your eyes to. I enjoyed the costumes, especially generously draped dresses and mature Tatyana’s stunning white dress with bustle and train and a slit at the front that opened to a vivid red, her theme colour in youth. I was understruck by the chorus which sounded like a collection of individuals (in phrasing and vibrato) rather than a unit like a choir, but thinking back, this may be apt. These are thirty or so people playing parts (admittedly as unnamed peasants) not a whole, so unity may not be the intention. I couldn’t help but be impressed by the main voices, Eugene’s baritone, Tatyana’s soprano, Onegin’s baritone and Lensky’s tenor. I wondered if voices are typecast in opera, so Tatyana is soprano, sister is mezzo-soprano and mother an maid are contralto, and, for the men, the powerful Prince is bass, the intellectual Onegin is baritone and the more lightweight Lensky is tenor. So, opera. I won’t rush back, although it was a worthy outing. I will read surtitles in future, and I may try for a language I have some chance of understanding, Italian or French or English. It’s somewhat like the book I’m reading at the moment, Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence, amongst high society life in New York in the 1870s, about Newland Archer and his impending marriage to sheltered May Welland and how it’s thrown into disarray by the arrival of May’s cousin, the separated Countess Ellen Olenska. There’s social custom and forbidden love and even a return after 26 years. This is another era of class and custom and it shows. Interesting to visit but hardly a daily indulgence.

Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin was performed by the Australian Opera at the Sydney Opera House. Key performers were Nicole Car (Tatyana, soprano), Dalibor Jenis (Eugene Onegin, baritone), James Egglestone (Lensky, tenor), Jacqueline Dark (maid Filippyevna, contralto) and Konstantin Gorny (Prince Gremin, bass) and the orchestra was directed by Guillaume Tourniaire (conductor).

Pic attribution: Third act, Eugene Onegin, at USSR State Bolshoy Theatre, Moscow, 1965. RIA Novosti archive, image #855192 / Boris Riabinin / CC-BY-SA 3.0

1 comment:

Whispering Gums said...

Sounds like an interesting experience. I don't know that I've been to the Joan Sutherland theatre, though maybe I have. I do recollect going to a smaller theatre there once. I don't think I've seen Onegin as an opera, but have seen it as a ballet. Aren't most opera stories dated in one sense? And yet their themes are universal - love, jealousy, faithfulness?

I went to quite a few operas in my 20s but, while I love some, and particularly some of those wonderful arias, it's probably one of my least favourite of the performing arts. Maybe, though, it's time to give it another go?