Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Eugene Onegin at the COC

Went to see Eugene Onegin at the Canadian Opera Company last Friday, and I do not know if I've ever come away from a performance more confused about how I felt about it.

There were some wonderful things - the singing, for example. Giselle Allen as Tatyana and Brett Polegato as Onegin were superb. Allen handled the letter scene beautifully, although the letter scene's staging, as well some real balance problems with the orchestra, completely undermined the work.

My main issue with the staging was its central premise. This production opens with Onegin meeting Tatyana as the Princess. In other words, the opera is staged as Onegin's reminiscences of what happened.

Now this isn't a bad premise. However, its execution in this production ruined the letter scene. Why? Onegin is on stage, presumably imagining Tatyana's feverish writing, turning the scene into something about him, and not her. But the scene is all about her, isn't it?

Making this his memory of something he couldn't have been privy to renders their reunion in the Third Act problematic though, doesn't it? We only know what Onegin's been thinking, so what do we make of with Tatyana's feelings at the end?

Worse, during Lensky's famous aria, Kuda, kuda vï udalilis, Onegin isn't there! Why? Why do we leave Lensky to his own devices here? Moreover, the duel itself is staged as Lensky committing suicide, not being shot by Onegin, again downplaying the tragedy of the entire opera.

By turning Onegin into a kind of crypto-Werther, where it all becomes about Onegin, the opera loses its tragic element. Onegin is indeed a cautionary tale, but doesn't come out much more clearly when we are exposed to his actions as an objective feature of the work, and not a subjective outcome of his own, perhaps deluded mind?

What about the rest of it? The set was beautiful, and the staging, beyond this, was quite beautiful. That's the word that keeps coming to mind - beautiful. Except for the orchestra, which played worse than I have ever heard them. And I saw something I haven't seen in the new opera house - the orchestra and chorus came completely apart in the Act II, Scene I finale.

It was scary - it almost looked like it was going to fall apart. It didn't, but I hate to say it - the rapturous applause the audience gave the orchestra at the end was undeserved. Toronto, do you actually listen to the opera? Or is applause like tipping here, where you do it out of obligation and not as a sign of the quality of the performance?

The orchestra is so much better than they were last Friday, and I fear that the darkest consequence of Bradshaw's passing is that the COC orchestra is beginning to lose its way. Let's hope I am wrong.

I should also mention that one of the interesting aspects of the production was how it brought out Onegin's boredom. In this production, Onegin becomes a thoroughly Romantic figure stuck in an aristocratic past, an interesting line of inquiry which got somewhat lost in the other strangeness of the production.

So was Onegin good, or was it bad? Friends, that is no kind of question. This production is well worth seeing, precisely because of the problems it poses. Check it out if you can.

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