Russians reach heart of Onegin
By Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky. A Vancouver Opera Festival presentation. At the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Sunday, April 29. Continues on May 3 and 5
The team behind Vancouver 2
Opera’s new Eugene Onegin knows the key is to perform it “truthfully, sincerely, and simply”—to borrow Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky’s own words.
After all, there’s not a lot of plot to fall back on in the opera based on Aleksandr Pushkin’s novel in verse. And in this production, there’s not a lot of high-concept design to distract either (unlike the stark and frosty contemporary vision VO presented in 2008).
No, it’s the very straightforwardness that works so well here: amid the rich orchestrations and lyricism, the pure human emotion is allowed to flow through. This is in huge part due to the young Russian leads’ heartfelt performances and to the depth and feeling in outgoing maestro Jonathan Darlington’s conducting.
Directed by Tom Diamond, Eu- gene Onegin really transports you to 19th-century St. Petersburg, where class and custom come into play, as young country girl Tatyana (Svetlana Aksenova) falls in love with a bored rich neighbour, Onegin (Konstantin Shushakov). The long first act is full of peasant folk dances and harvest celebrations, but there’s huge emotional payoff in two important intimate scenes: Tatyana working up the nerve all night to write a love letter to Onegin, and Onegin patronizingly giving her the brushoff. (His words “Your sincerity is charming” stab her like a knife.) Singing in their rolling mother tongue brings added authenticity.
Shushakov nails the broody, arrogant character who will come to regret his actions. He’s matched by a wonderfully passionate and fullvoiced Vladimir Lensky (Alexei Dolgov) and a smart, complex Tatyana, who pulls off a flawless, expressive final aria that shows her character’s inner conflict and transformation. Other highlights include an incredibly intense duel scene, set before a skeletal tree on the slightly raked stage’s snowy field, and a showstopping aria by Georgian bass Goderdzi Janelidze as Prince Gremin, the aging war hero who has married Tatyana.
Through it all, Darlington and the VO orchestra explore all the textures in Tchaikovsky’s score, applying a feather-light touch to the reapers’ first country song, finding the foreboding in the frenzy of strings that launches the duel scene, and making the waltzes truly dance.
The chorus adds equal colour to the score, with some of the most adorable little peasant girls you’ve ever seen twirling across the stage.
The opera is not devoid of contemporary stagecraft: black-and-white film projections of gathering clouds and Onegin, sometimes contemplating Tatyana’s letter, sometimes considering the pistol he keeps in a box. Though perhaps superfluous, they do provide moody, old-cinematic atmosphere to the musical interludes, as well as helping glue the episodic acts together and showing the titular cad’s more sympathetic side.
But this is not a production you go to for conceptual hocus-pocus or contemporary retelling. It’s a show that revels in the emotional landscapes of its characters and the details of its intricately embroidered score. And—if you can stomach a disco reference in an opera review— oh, those Russians.
THE OVERCOAT— A MUSICAL TAILORING
2> JANET SMITH
By Morris Panych and James Rolfe. A Vancouver Opera and Tapestry Opera production as part of the Vancouver Opera Festival. At the Vancouver Playhouse on Saturday, April 28. Continues until May 12
The Overcoat is part of Vancouver theatre lore, a unique homegrown hit. And seeing some of its original team, like Morris Panych and Wendy Gorling, bow to a standing O at the end of this sungthrough reworking at the Vancouver Opera Festival opening was a blast from the past.
But it’s important to look at The Overcoat—a Musical Tailoring on its own terms. Drawing from the original, movement director Gorling turns opera into a highly choreographed, fast-moving tableau, pushing the physical bounds of her performers. And the new show takes the form out of the realm of traditional comedy or tragedy, Panych’s playful libretto embracing a dark mix of absurdism and allegory, with an acid-sharpened edge.
The original was a wordless movement-theatre piece based on a short story by Nikolai Gogol and set to the music of Dmitri Shostakovich. The musical version now features singing and a score by Canadian composer James Rolfe, who lets loose with quirky yet tuneful orchestrations that suit the highly stylized subject matter.
The 12-member orchestra, under the baton of Leslie Dala, sounds bigger than it is, gamely mixing the comical and the lyrical. Cartoonish piano runs accompany a stoned tailor snorting his snuff; a Mad Chorus trio of white-nightie-wearing women sing haunting melodies throughout; and there’s even a nod to Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven near the end.
As a whole, the show defies traditional operatic structure at almost every turn, whipping through multiple scene changes, avoiding grand arias, and ending each of its two acts not with big group crescendos but on quiet, darkly humorous punch lines.
Baritone Geoffrey Sirett is simply perfect as the downtrodden bureaucrat Akakiy, whose favourite number is zero. He’s a nobody bullied relentlessly by his coworkers for his diligence, but he finally becomes a somebody when he saves his money for a fancy new coat—one that will eventually lead to his downfall.
Baritone Peter Mcgillivray shows incredible versatility, vocal range, and buffoonish slapstick humour multitasking as the drunken tailor Petrovich, the blowhard Personage at the police station, and the head of Akakiy’s department. And Erica Iris Huang is fierce as Mrs. Petrovich and a Mad Chorus member. Seemingly plucked out of theatre of the absurd, these are characters who are more distancing and exaggerated than realistic.
Some of the highlights involve the cleverly crafted staging: the repeated clanging and flashing bright lights of Akakiy’s morning wakeup panic, and the way set designer Ken Macdonald’s stained-glass panels can turn into subway cars with clever lighting by Alan Brodie. As in the play, the overcoat takes on a life of its own, helped by “movement actors” Colin Heath and Courtenay Stevens, who pepper artful physical clowning throughout the piece. And the white-clad Mad Chorus of three, who foreshadow the ending and haunt Akakiy throughout, offset the score’s occasional abrasive moments with eerily beautiful music.
If possible, the ending is bleaker and more existential here than in the original theatre work—the blackly comic joke that finds the destroyed Akakiy in another kind of overcoat is almost shocking in its pessimism.
Like the rest of this innovative and gleefully strange dark comedy, it provokes sensations you don’t often get at a night at the opera. After a long and storied history, this musical adaptation feels like fresh new threads. Take a leap and try it on for size.
> JANET SMITH