The Nederlandse Opera’s new production of Tchaikovsky’s Evgeny Onegin cannot help being a must-see: it features only Mariss Jansons and the Concertgebouw Orchestra in the pit and the controversial Stefan Herheim as stage director. Before I write further, I will say straightaway that it is worthwhile the trip.
Although I was disappointed to see Herheim repeating his historic approach as in his Bayreuth Parsifal (it would be sad if he, of all people, turns out to be predictable), the formula does work. Onegin is a man in search of identity – and Russia has faced a similar problem as a nation. When we first meet both in this staging, the shadow of the Romantic world still haunts them. Revolution makes its appearance with the end of innocence, when Lensky challenges Onegin to a duel before revolutionary soldiers. The ball in Moscow is a parade of Sovietic icons – ballet dancers, athletes, astronauts – a collective self-affirmation that does not provide answers to Onegin’s individual questions. In this ball, Tatiana and Gremin are just idealized visions. Their real appearance, in Putin’s Russia, finally proves to be more violent in their new money/old habits-milieu. Even if you disagree with the analogy, Pushkin’s storyline is given an interesting twist when told in flashback. Onegin is in a kitsch-glamour hall when he sees Tatiana as a socialite. Suddenly, the glass-and-metal room centerstage becomes Larina’s house by virtue of a revolving structure. Past and present intertwine: Tatiana and Onegin write their letters simultaneously while Gremin sleeps in his bed. Sets and costumes are ingeniously and beautifully conceived (I only dislike the cheap computer-made projections – and maybe the guy in a bear costume borrowed from Herheim’s Lohengrin at the Lindenoper) and make the complex shiftings in time and in scope (social/private) coherent.
Mariss Jansons offers a subtle and elegant view of the score. It does not sound typically “Russian” in its transparent textures, clear strings and avoidance of emotionalism, but is somehow faithful to the melancholic atmosphere of the work. His sense of balance between stage and pit is exemplary, not to mention his ability to increase volume without saturating the aural picture with excessive loudness.
Crowning the performance, Krassimira Stoyanova’s immaculate Tatiana. The voice is exquisite and expressive, the technique is solid and she inhabits the role musically and scenically. Elena Maximova too has the perfect voice and attitude for Olga, but her sense of pitch leaves something to be desired. Olga Savova and Nina Romanova are ideally cast as Larina’s and Filipevna. Andrei Dunaev is a reliable Lenski – the voice is spontaneous, but his big aria was not really thrilling (or maybe I’ve been spoiled by Piotr Beczala in New York and Rolando Villazón in Berlin). Mikhail Petrenko offered a sensitive account of his aria – a little bit more body in his high register would have been helpful. As for Boje Skovhus, although he sang better than in Berlin in 2009, his pleasant and well-focused baritone still lacks some depth in this role, but the truth is his overacting is always hard to overlook – even when relatively tamed by a strong-handed director
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When reviewing Janowski’s Parsifal with the RSB, I have written that clarity above richness of sound seemed to define the conductor’s approach to Wagner, especially if one has his recording of the Ring with the Staatskapelle Dresden in mind. Well, this evening proves that Janowski’s Wagnerian abilities are more varied than I thought. Maybe because Die Meistersinger is notoriously long and massive, the conductor might have hought that a little orchestral glamour could be helpful. And his musicians did not hang fire. The overture alone was worth the expensive ticket price – full orchestral sound without any loss of structural transparence and flexibility. Then the Rundfunkchor Berlin happened to be in top form. The evening had a promising start.
I had never seen this opera in concert version and never realized until this evening how much of a challenge it is to balance a big orchestra on stage and roles meant for lighter voices in many conversational passages, often in the middle register of singers’ voices. Janowski took the decision of not sacrificing his orchestra and allowed singers to be heard over it by a very small margin. In the end of act I, for example, instead of giving the tenor the opportunity to shine in Fanget an! , he would rather give pride of place to the sensuous ebb and flow of string sounds in a way that made me rethink the whole scene. Act II never sounded so organic, with the difficult transitions spontaneously and coherently handled. If I had to make any observation, this would regard the last scene, the “on stage” band could be a little bit subtler and more integrated with the main orchestra. I am tempted to say that the more “intimate” passages could have a bit more Innigkeit and less objectivity and forward-movement, but then I am not sure if we had this kind of cast this evening.
My first and foremost vocal interest this evening was Edith Haller’s Eva. I saw her Gutrune and Sieglinde in Bayreuth last year and found her simply outstanding. My first impression this evening was that her interpretation was too much about minauderie. Her Eva was desperately little-woman-ish, piping and pecking at notes old-Viennese style. One would have never believed she sings roles like Elsa or Sieglinde. Eventually I would start to suspect that she was simply not in good voice – some high notes were a bit sharp and often fixed and unflowing. Of course, she still has a lovely voice and had no problem piercing through the orchestra, but I will really have to hear her Eva again to say something about it. Michelle Breedt was a very charming Magdalene, supple and warm-toned. Robert Dean Smith has the right voice and personality for the role of Stolzing. He sings with exemplary legato, real feeling for the words and good taste. His high g’s and a’s could be a bit ampler and brighter, but were round and easy nonetheless. I have seen more flexible and varied Davids than Peter Sonn, but I confess I like his straight-to-the matter ways with the role. Thank God he is no tenorino, while the voice is warmer than the usual Spieltenor’s as well. Dietrich Henschel’s unfocused and often rough Beckmesser made one wonder why one would consider that Meistersinger-level. Albert Dohmen’s bass-baritone sounds too heavy and sometimes effortful in his high notes as Hans Sachs. The tone is not really noble, but the voice is large and he is able to keep clear articulation for more declamatory passages and even soften for one or two key moments. But the results were too often Wotan-like in a role where congeniality is important. Georg Zeppenfeld was an efficient Pogner, but Matti Salminen’s cameo as the Nachtwächter showed up his younger colleagues’ less classically Wagnerian voices.
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The Danish Royal Theater has achieved a reputation as a Handelian operatic venue since commendable DVDs of Giulio Cesare and Partenope have been released. The example apparently has been followed by Copenhagen’s New Opera, who, curiously, presented Handel’s Serse… in the Royal Theater’s old opera house (as in the above-mentioned DVDs). One cannot overlook the fact that the Barokksolistene do not have the polish and richness of the Concerto Copenhagen (at least as caught by the microphones); intonation is a bit unreliable, to start with, but conductor Lars Ole Mathiasen has a good ear for atmosphere and seems to find tempi that are both right for the dramatic pace and for his forces. The exception were the arie di bravure, in which passagework tested a bit his musicians.
As usual in Handel operas, the edition here adopted involve many cuts in recitatives and numbers, deletion of B sections, numbers trading place etc. Although the roles of Arsamene and Atalanta had the greater share of loss, director Elisabeth Linton gave every character in the plot enough action to define them to the audience. She benefited from a cast with outstanding acting skills and offered a sensitive and intelligent view of the plot, funny without ever bordering on silliness. I wish I could overlook Herbert Murauer’s ugly costumes, but I couldn’t – they looked cheap and pretentious in a performance where every other element was honest and effective. His sets also had more than a splash of kitsch, but that seemed to go with the eccentricities of Xerxes as portrayed here.
Romilda is one of the unluckiest roles in the whole Handel opera discography. After Lucia Popp’s luminous recording, no other soprano had done justice to the charming music Handel wrote to the character. But this evening it has been vindicated by Klara Ek’s exquisite performance. She sang affectingly with her golden-toned soprano that takes readily to coloratura and floats in ethereal pianissimi. I had heard in Bach’s Magnificat with the Berlin Philharmonic and found it all right, but this evening I have written down her name for the future. Atalanta is also a difficult piece of casting – everything points out to a soprano leggiero, but the tessitura is too low for that. Anne Mette Balling could not meet this requirement and failed to find her way in this part. This was the first time I have seen Tuva Semmingsen live and confess I expected a more incisive voice. Although her coloratura in Crude furie was excitingly handled, she lacks the heft for the more heroic moments. But this is the only (and minor) drawback in a delightful performance: the voice is beautiful, the low register is warm and fruity, the style is irreproachable and she is a truly marvelous actress who had the audience in her hands. I wonder if Arsamene is the right role for Matilda Paulsson. I’ve read she had sung Amastre – and that seems to make more sense. Her mezzo is dark and quite grainy (what masked a bit her attempts at trilling) and I was ready to say Handel is not really her repertoire. But then she seemed to declick in Sì, la voglio e l’otterò, handling her fioriture with true bravura. After that, she could even mellow her tone and sing indeed touchingly. Andrea Pellegrini had a similar evolution during the evening – at first, her contralto was so unfocused that one could not really hear her. Her voice, however, slowly, gained strength; eventually Cagion son’io del mio dolore would be beautifully sung. Although Johan Rydh has very precise divisions, the role of Ariodate is too low for him. I wonder if Jens Søndergaard (who was singing Elviro) would not be better cast in that role.
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