Eugene Onegin by Tchaikovsky
Conducted by Howard Moody; produced and directed by Rhona Fraser
Principal singers: Katherine McIndoe, Daniel O’Connor, Filipe Manu, Elisabeth Harris, Christie Cook, Annabelle Cheetham, Tavis Gravatt
In English translation by David Lloyd-Jones
Opera in a Days Bay Garden
Canna House, Days Bay, Wellington
Wednesday 15 February 7: 15 pm
Days Bay Opera continues its eclectic repertory policies, that have ranged from the mid 16th century to the 20th. For this, it was back to the garden, after the indoors performance of Theodora, on a fine but somewhat cool evening.
What may well have been a worry was a summer that is hardly worthy of the name, and further performances of both pieces on the following days may not have been so fortunate.
This was the first time this precious Wellington opera enterprise has packaged two productions at the same time. A big challenge, but one that seemed not to have caused any loss of energy or diminished musical standard. It permitted the use of several voices in both productions which may have been an economy in some respects. Both productions forwent the engagement of a professional director, but if that simply meant there was no impulse to impose a ‘reading’ or ‘concept’ on either work, for me, there’s no real loss. Fraser handled movement and attention to meaningful interaction between characters with all the experience that a seasoned performer gains instinctively.
These were the eleventh and twelfth productions by Days Bay Opera.
While the acoustic of the hill-side amphitheatre is very good, most of the voices emerged with excellently clear diction so that the English translation was very comprehensible. It was sung in the very attractive translation by David Lloyd Jones, to be found in the English National Opera/Royal Opera Opera Guide 38.
First voices heard are from Madam Larina and the family nurse, Filippyevna, both clear and understandable, exchanging nostalgic childhood memories, almost as if social equals. Elisabeth Harris as Madame Larina might have looked no older than her daughters, but that was an inconsequential detail alongside the unusual liveliness of her total performance. Annabelle Cheetham acted splendidly as Filippyevna, the arthritic, old family retainer, full of peasant simplicity and common sense and in a voice of mature warmth and naturalness.
Both the men were convincing: Filipe Manu was a serious-demeanoured Lensky whose fine voice enabled him to express the sincerity of his feelings for the flighty, self-obsessed Olga, whose role was sung with real conviction and psychological accuracy by mezzo Christie Cook.
Lensky’s impassioned ‘Ya lyublyu vas’ (I love you’) is the first notable aria and it distinguished Manu at once. It stood in contrast to Olga’s perfunctory remark as his aria finishes that their parents watched them grow up and knew they would marry. It was just one of the many perceptive, poetic touches in this exceptionally fine libretto.
Manu skilfully captured Lensky’s increasing dismay and eventual uncontrollable anger during the Larin party after Onegin deliberately provokes him by flirting with Olga – and ignoring Tatyana; and his voice and acting made a deep impression. Nothing in the opera, however, is as moving as the opportunities for self- examination offered as the two men prepare for the duel, where Lensky delivers his great lament for his past happiness, in ‘Kuda, kuda…’ (literally ‘Where, where?’).
Daniel O’Connor presented an Onegin who was not only unusually young-looking – most I’ve seen live or on video have looked rather older than the character whom Pushkin imagines aged around 25 in Act I – but who also succeeded in displaying a reasonable degree of sensitivity alongside a superciliousness (which is more credible in a 25-year-old than at 40), and even in his response to Tatyana’s naïve, impassioned letter, his performance was fundamentally gentle, not overdoing the condescension. His was a fine performance. And though his behaviour at the Larin party can still seem to be at odds with his real nature, he acted like a man suddenly possessed by an irrational seizure.
The opera perhaps doesn’t explain satisfactorily why Onegin is bored and irritated by the name-day party. Pushkin had Lensky inviting him ‘mischievously’, not explaining that it would be a boisterous peasant affair, far removed from the gentilities of a St Petersburg social event, and therefore likely to bore him.
Later, preparing for the duel, O’Connor displayed an affecting self-perception as he prepares himself for the duel. As they ready to fire, both men sing the same helpless words, and the audience is allowed a moment of hope that the action will abandon the libretto and score and call the whole thing off.
So one even felt a degree of compassion for him at the end when it is Tatyana who – heart-breakingly – rejects his pathetic imploring that she abandon her marriage to elope with him.
Katherine McIndoe’s Tatyana’s was similarly a thoughtful, complex performance with vocal and acting characteristics that illustrated her inexperience, influenced by romantic novels (like Emma Bovary?). The crushing of her romantic dreams when Onegin responds to her had considerable impact on the audience; she is shy, with more quiet, cultivated interests than her sister; integral in her characterisation was her evident embarrassment at being the focus of attention at her name-day party as Monsieur Triquet (a perfectly French-accented Luka Venter) sings couplets that he has composed in her honour.
In Act III there is the important role of Prince Gremin, the host of the high society St Petersburg ball, and now Tatyana’s husband. Tavis Gravatt’s bass baritone voice was splendidly fitted to the task, and though not so physically imposing, presented himself and his voice with great aplomb in one of the great bass arias in the opera repertory: ‘Lyubvi vse vosrasty pokornu’ (The gift of love is rightly treasured).
There was a well-schooled chorus, some of whose members doubled as minor characters like Monsieur Triquet (Luka Venter) and an army captain in crimson uniform (William McElwee) – both of whom had been heard in Theodora a few days before.
They too were sensibly disposed, showing the sensitivity of the direction – this time by Rhona Fraser herself (as with Theodora). I was intrigued to read in the programme that costumes were from a Moscow supplier, for they had the simplicity of a modestly affluent Russian country estate in Acts I and II and something more elaborate, but credibly Tsarist-era, in the third act.
Then the orchestra, twelve-piece, comprising five strings, five winds, harp and timpani, from the NZSO and other orchestras. One of the first things to notice, at least from where I was sitting on the left of the lawn in front of the house, was an occasionally unbalanced sound, even to the point of hearing some kind of phantom ensemble-disjunction. But this was probably an acoustic eccentricity resulting from the placement of the orchestra inside the house and the varying sound reflections resulting from the position and character of various instruments, and my particular seat.
The obvious shortcomings of the ‘stage’ – spread across almost the width of the house so that audience at the sides lost a bit of the sound at times – were a small price to pay for the simple delight of the forested-hillside setting, the audience close to such accomplished singers.
Tchaikovsky’s rich orchestral sound was never an expectation and there were, naturally, moments when one rather hoped for more, but most of the time the accompaniment was very adequate; for example, the waltz in Act II was surprisingly effective, perhaps in keeping with the players at a country dance (no, better than that of course).
English conductor Howard Moody, who has conducted several of Days Bays’ recent productions, was again in charge and the results were always lively and in a comfortable relationship with the singers. Moody’s CV (http://www.howardmoody.net/biography.html) reveals an extraordinary range of activities world-wide, (all over Britain and many parts of Europe – including Romania, Netherlands, Poland, Norway, Iceland, Bangladesh… and New Zealand), including reference to a composition entitled And my heart goes swimming, for Days Bay Opera, no less.
So I was delighted to have another live experience of this, one of my half dozen best loved operas, in a youthful and memorable production.
For the record, my archive of opera productions in New Zealand shows three earlier performances of Eugene Onegin;
Wellington City Opera 1997
Canterbury Opera 1998
New Zealand Opera 2009
It was not in the repertoire of any of the scores of touring companies that circulated through New Zealand from the 1860s till 1949.