Rus­sians reach heart of One­gin

MU­SIC

The Georgia Straight - - Arts -

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

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