Eugene Onegin straight from the heart…

TCHAIKOVSKY – Eugene Onegin
an Opera in Three Acts
Libretto by the composer, after Pushkin

NBR New Zealand Opera
The Genesis Energy Season

Cast: Anna Leese (Tatyana) / William Dazeley (Eugene Onegin) / Roman Shulackoff
(Lensky) / Patricia Wright (Madame Larina) / Kirstie Darragh (Olga) / Martin Snell (Prince Gremin) / Wendy Doyle (Filipyevna) / Andrew Glover (Monsieur Triquet) / Roger Wilson  (Zaretsky)

Chapman Tripp Opera Chorus
Vector Wellington Orchestra
Conductor: Alexander Polianichko
Director: Patrick Nolan

St James Theatre, Wellington: 10th Oct 2009 to 17th Oct 2009

One of the loveliest of all operas, Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, a setting of Pushkin’s tale of innocent ill-fated love, received a strongly-conceived and finely-executed production from NBR New Zealand Opera on the opening night of its 2009 Wellington season at the St.James Theatre. Its pivotal stage-figure was soprano Anna Leese in the role of Tatyana, the girl who at the story’s outset declares her love for the opera’s eponymous hero, and then, having been wounded by his rejection of her, marries someone else. For this role of Shakespearean range and depth a consummate artist is needed, and as a singer Anna Leese has developed into just that – throughout, her voice for me vividly evoked all of the various moods and developments of the character, every utterance recreating a young girl’s romantic dreaminess and impulsiveness at the story’s beginning, and a deepening of womanly understanding as the story’s tragedy unfolds.

Occasionally I thought her stage movement needed more fluidity, matching what the music was doing (parts of her well-known Letter Scene I thought too static, where she seemed confined by her writing desk, instead of spontaneously expressing with her movements what she was singing) – but her voice alone conveyed so much of what her character needed that such criticism seems quite ungracious. She conveyed to us all of her bitter disappointment and disillusionment at Onegin’s rejection of her, and went on to develop strength and resolve as a worldly-wise woman at the story’s end, as, after admitting to Onegin that she still loved him, she in turn spurns his belated declarations of love to her.

William Dazeley’s baritone provided a near-perfect foil for Leese’s Tatyana, with singing and acting that captured the essentials of Onegin’s character, his aloof charm and supercilious arrogance in the early part of the story, and his growing disillusionment with life and final despair at losing Tatyana forever at the opera’s thrilling denoument. This was great theatre, made possible by the sheer commitment shown by both singers to their roles, and underpinned by full-blooded playing from the Wellington Orchestra under Alexander Polianichko. Earlier in the story, where Dazeley’s Onegin was elegant and contained, Russian tenor Roman Shulackoff’s Lensky was all youthful ardour and boisterous spirits, readily demonstrating an impetuousness of manner that was to bring about his own tragic death at the hands of his friend.

As Olga, Kirstie Darragh sang winningly, though I thought her stage-character needed a bit more flirtatious spunk in order to convincingly drive her lover, Lensky, into the jealous rage that pulsated the story’s heart of darkness. By contrast Patricia Wright was superb in every way as Madame Larina, Tatyana’s mother; and convincing cameo roles were also taken by Wendy Doyle as the nurse, Andrew Glover as Monsieur Triquet, and Roger Wilson as Lensky’s duelling second, Zaretsky. A show-stopping appearance in Act Three was that of bass Martin Snell as Prince Gremin, his aria extolling the virtues of Tatyana, his young wife deeply sonorous and beautifully touching.

Occasionally the chorus was hampered by a stage set that crowded its movements, as in the Act Three Polonaise, where the use of chairs by the company did nothing except make the setting seem even more claustrophobic – though, as with the second-act Waltz, the movement  of the dancers gradually cleared the oppressive spaces and opened up the vistas. The Wellington Orchestra seemed to make heavy weather of parts of this score, and took time to “settle” under conductor Alexander Polianichko, with strings occasionally sounding unhappy in exposed passages and winds sometimes fallible in ensemble work – still, conductor and players got things together sufficiently to deliver the drama’s knockout punch in the final scene with thrilling impact, supporting the singers to the utmost.

The production had the virtue of recreating a scenario approximating to the work’s original conception, one which the audience had not a whit of trouble relating to or getting involved with. I occasionally found the visuals cast unduly on the dark and sombre side – the monolithic columns at times seemed more appropriate to something like “Aida” or Act Two of “Die Zauberflote” than to a Russian country estate – but in general I thought director Patrick Nolan did a wonderful job, working with Bernie Tan’s lighting to make creative use of the space and reflect the emotional complexities of the drama. A case in point was the work’s brief overture, during which Onegin was shown reflecting on his life and its troubles and complexities. For a first-timer’s encounter with the work, NZ Opera’s production must have been a great experience, and if not faultless in every respect, could hardly have been more satisfactorily or enjoyably presented by all concerned.

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