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Half a decent Onegin

23 Dec

Is Onegin right in one of his early remarks to Lensky that, really, he ought to have gone after Tatyana? In Kasper Holten’s production of this opera (I saw the revival on 22nd December), Olga is patently more interested in Onegin than in Lensky and the latter seems to have some sort of sympathy with Tatyana.

Holten’s production has, apparently, been re-thought slightly since its first performance a couple of years ago. I didn’t notice a lot of difference and the problems that I felt with it then are still there: it’s too heavy, too detailed and the whole business of having Tatyana and Onegin watching their younger selves strikes me as fatally undermining the immediacy of the emotions: it’s clever but this isn’t an opera that really needs that level of cleverness. Ugly costumes and a production that’s just too heavy and self-conscious don’t help the opera.

And that was why I left at the interval (as is now fashionable after the first scene of Act II. I’d bought a cheap ticket because I was attracted by the prospect of Semyon Bychkov conducting and Fabbiano as Lensky, while the presence of Hvorostovsky wasn’t exactly a disincentive either. There were lots of good things about this performance but, ultimately, nothing that I needed to miss a train for.

The discovery of the evening turned out to be Nicole Car as Tatyana. She struck me as having an ideal voice for the role and an intensely sympathetic presence that almost overcame the handicap of having to sing the letter scene to her younger self. I thought she sang that scene as well as anyone that since Cotrubas and Freni in this house – appealing, intelligent and entirely convincing: the emotions were raw and not overdone. The singing was clear, with a voice just the right size for the house and with a lovely range of colour.  She is unquestionably someone to watch.

Fabbiano made a very sympathetic, intelligent Lensky.  He chewed the scenery appropriately in the party scene. He does have a tendency to sing forte and it would have been nice to have slightly more tenderness and the occasional piano now and then but it’s a really grateful voice to hear and, again, there’s no question that he’s got a splendid career coming.

It’s great to see Hvorostovsky performing, given his current state of health. He still looks an elegant Onegin but the voice seems to have darkened and become heavier: he sounds a bit older than he should. On the other hand, his way with the text and the way in which he colours the words and the emotions is outstanding. I didn’t feel he was helped by the production and this was a performance where the vocal quality and the care that he bestowed on that were special.

The other roles were pretty well cast. Oksana Volkova made a lively Olga even if I wasn’t quite convinced that her rather heavy, almost contralto-ish, mezzo was the ideal foil for Ms Car. Diana Montague was first rate as Mme Larina, Catherine Wyn-Rogers a very fine Filipyevna who sang and acted the words really well. We had Jean-Paul Fouchécourt as M Triquet who sang his number really beautifully – as well as I’ve heard it. I was sorry to miss Ferruccio Furlanetto as Gremin.

I thought Bychkov conducted very well, shaping the music nicely (and doing the Triquet number as well as Gergiev). What I didn’t get was the level of febrile excitement and passion that Gergiev can bring to this opera. It felt like a very solid, reliable, distinguished performance rather than one that caught you up and didn’t let you go.  Perhaps the production didn’t give him a chance. The orchestra played mostly well though there was the odd slip in ensemble. The chorus sang strongly even if I wasn’t completely sure that they understood what they were singing about. Holten treats them as an unpleasant, gossiping community.

If I’d not seen this production before, I’m pretty sure that I would have stayed to the end. This was a very strong musical performance and I’m glad I had the opportunity to hear Ms Car and Mr Fabbiano. But I had seen and the quality of the music wasn’t going to overcome the handicap Holten has imposed on this opera.  With any luck, this will be its last outing.

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