Music and Vision homepage All Risks Musical - an irreverent guide to the music profession by Alice McVeigh

 

Ensemble

A Standout Production

New Zealand Opera's 'Eugene Onegin'
impresses HOWARD SMITH

 

While Eugene Onegin, the standout production of NBR New Zealand Opera's 2009 season [seen at the 10 October 2009 Wellington opening at St James Theatre], was notable for its strong cast of principals, the crowning accolade must surely go to Australian production designer, Genevieve Blanchett (sister of Cate). Her audacious, austere, masterfully-designed sets conferred extra-ordinary verisimilitude on Tchaikovsky/Pushkin's intensely emotive drama.

The seven bare cedars (Act 1, scene 1), the spare, high, illusional bedroom (Act 1, scene 2) and later, Blanchett's dark, lofty, unadorned interiors -- each marvelously reflected her invaluable architectural training.

Furthermore the inspirational design proved a gift for Malaysian lighting designer Bernie Tan and his unerring responses drew the Wellington audience still more surely to the core of the heartfelt drama. Costumes from Opera Australia were adapted by Blanchett and Elizabeth Whiting.

Anna Leese as Tatyana in the New Zealand Opera production of 'Eugene Onegin'. Photo © 2009 Jane Ussher
Anna Leese as Tatyana in the New Zealand Opera production of 'Eugene Onegin'. Photo © 2009 Jane Ussher

(A noticeable drawback for those in the forward stalls; the English 'surtitles' -- above the proscenium and high above either side of the auditorium front -- were almost bound to cause sore necks. The side 'surtitles' might have been more patron-friendly if set a little lower.)

Tchaikovsky's best-known operatic masterpiece is an adaptation of Pushkin's novel in verse about a detached, socially self-aware hero (Onegin). Set amidst the privileged classes in early nineteenth century Russia it tells how Onegin lives to rue a lack of foresight and the ill-considered rejection of a demure young woman's love (Tatyana) and leads to a fatal duel with his best friend (Lensky).

The libretto adheres closely to Pushkin's original, retaining much of his poetry, to which Tchaikovsky adds a typically heart-on-sleeve score.

New Zealand ladies as Tatyana and Olga together with English and Russian opera stars as Onegin and Lensky (respectively) were admirably cast and emerging soprano Anna Leese's Tatyana lacked for little in her conviction within such a demanding role. A clear sense of decisive assertion and unwavering dignity were evident in Leese's portrayal and the capacity audience responded with vociferous enthusiasm at the final curtain.

Anna Leese as Tatyana in the New Zealand Opera production of 'Eugene Onegin'. Photo © 2009 Jane Ussher
Anna Leese as Tatyana in the New Zealand Opera production of 'Eugene Onegin'. Photo © 2009 Jane Ussher

The briefest moment of misjudgement occurred however when she leaned so far backward at the conclusion of the 'letter scene' that onlookers in the stalls found themselves looking at what appeared for all the world like a decapitated heroine.

NZ's 'flagship' opera company was indeed fortunate in engaging internationally acclaimed male vocalists as the ill-fated friends: Onegin (William Dazeley) and Lensky (Roman Shulackoff). These two busy performers have ideally contrasted voices; the former a firm dramatic baritone and his counterpart, a ringing bel canto tenor.

Shulackoff made his professional début as Lensky with Novaya Opera Moscow and the subtlety in shading his delivery in more contemplative passages was beautifully managed. And the English baritone clearly revealed Onegin's social instincts overriding his deeper feelings.

From Wellington, Dazeley goes on to perform in an antithetical work by reckless American genius George Antheil (1900-1959). In November he will appear with the Bochum Symphony Orchestra at Bochum's Audimax der Ruhr-Universität in western Germany taking part in Antheil's one act opera The Brothers (1954) based on the Cain and Abel story and introduced by Björn Woll, critic and senior editor of Fono Forum.

William Dazeley in the title role of the New Zealand Opera production of 'Eugene Onegin'. Photo © 2009 Jane Ussher
William Dazeley in the title role of the New Zealand Opera production of 'Eugene Onegin'. Photo © 2009 Jane Ussher

As Olga Larina, soprano Kristen Darragh was a carefree counterpart for Leese, adding resolutely to an already impressive repertoire.

Subsidiary roles were consistently excellent -- Patricia Wright (Madame Larina) studied with both Sister Mary Leo and Dame Joan Hammond, and the aristocratic bearing she brought to her estate was obvious from the outset.

Equally the distinctive character Martin Snell (Prince Gremin) conferred on a relatively minor part in Act 3 was evidence of the dividends Snell has gained from his experiences at Bayreuth, Berliner Staatsoper, Prague State Opera, Staatstheater Darmstadt, Opernhaus Graz/Steiermark/Österreich and the Festival International d'art Lyrique; Aix-en-Provence (etc).

In his short appearance Andrew Glover, Lexus Song Quest (2009) finalist (Judge: famed heldentenor Siegfried Jerusalem) gave his role -- Monsieur Triquet -- refreshing enthusiasm.

A scene from New Zealand Opera's production of 'Eugene Onegin'. Photo © 2009 Jane Ussher
A scene from New Zealand Opera's production of 'Eugene Onegin'. Photo © 2009 Jane Ussher

Last year ('year of the recession' -- 2008), NBR NZ Opera's Hansel and Gretel had to settle for a downsized sixteen-member orchestra and revised scoring. But here, ten months later, it was especially rewarding to hear ample Tchaikovskian grunt from the pit. Fifty three members of Vector Wellington Orchestra including thirty three strings (eighteen violins), nine winds and nine brass, harp and timpani, enabled conductor Alexander Polianichko to call forth surging dramatic weight and evocative detail, notably from the horn and winds.

Formerly a violinist in the Leningrad (St Petersburg) Philharmonic Orchestra under the legendary Mravinsky, conductor Polianichko studied with the Professor Ilya Musin at the St Petersburg Conservatoire. In 1988 he was awarded first prize in the Sixth All-Union Conductors' Competition and the following year joined the Mariinsky (Kirov) Theatre where he still conducts on a regular basis.

His diverse work spanning the repertoire in international opera has included later Tchaikovsky works: Mazeppa (1884), Cherevichki (1887), and The Queen of Spades (1890), and further Russian operas -- Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (Shostakovitch), Mavra (Stravinsky), The Prodigal Son and Love of Three Oranges (Prokofiev) plus Boris Godunov and Khovanschina (Mussorgsky).

A true ethnic atmosphere was further reinforced by the affiliated Chapman Tripp Opera Chorus with its approximation of indigenous Russian voices. All it lacked was a fuller Slavic bass effect.

A scene from New Zealand Opera's production of 'Eugene Onegin'. Photo © 2009 Jane Ussher
A scene from New Zealand Opera's production of 'Eugene Onegin'. Photo © 2009 Jane Ussher

Australian director Patrick Nolan has drawn the cast, creative team and orchestra together with such surety that NBR New Zealand Opera must notch this production (sung in Russian) high among its most outstanding presentations of the 21st century.

Copyright © 21 October 2009 Howard Smith,
Masterton, New Zealand

-------

PYOTR ILYICH TCHAIKOVSKY

EUGENE ONEGIN

NEW ZEALAND OPERA

WELLINGTON

NEW ZEALAND

 << M&V home       Concert reviews        Tolomeo >>

 

All Risks Musical - an irreverent guide to the music profession by Alice McVeigh