Breaking down barriers

ALL unhappy composers are alike. This was certainly true of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky while he was working on his new opera, Eugen Onegin. "Its plot is very simple," he wrote, "there are no visual effects, and the music lacks sparkle.

Eugen Onegin

Composed by:Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Libretto:Tchaikovsky and Konstantin Shilovsky, after Alexander Pushkin's novel in verse
Conducted by:Pavol Selecký
Where:Slovak National Theatre (SND), Hviezdoslavovo námestie, Bratislava
Next performance:October 4 at 19:00
Performed:in Russian with Slovak subtitles
Rating:8 of 10

ALL unhappy composers are alike. This was certainly true of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky while he was working on his new opera, Eugen Onegin. "Its plot is very simple," he wrote, "there are no visual effects, and the music lacks sparkle. Only those who are able to see it as a musical expression of everyday, simple, common feelings... may derive pleasure from it."

Renowned German director Peter Konwitschny seized on part of that sentiment while shaping his modern production of the opera, which had its Slovak premiere at the Slovak National Theatre (SND) last weekend. This was the first premiere of the new season and came during a transformative period for the SND Opera, which, since last season, has been making headlines with modern productions and impressive guest artists.

This is in line with a global trend that aims to use modern productions suited for classically trained artists to keep audiences interested and prevent art from stagnating. Nonetheless, the modern opera director's job remains a high-risk balancing act of creating an interpretation that's original, yet respectful of the composer's score and the work's cultural significance.

The last time the SND tried a modern production was in March with the staging of Czech director Jiří Nekvasil's version of Dvořák's Rusalka. Though largely a critical success, Rusalka seemed to strike a nerve with theatregoers. Last weekend's premiere was different.

Eugen Onegin's main characters are victims of society's rules, a theme that must have hit home for Tchaikovsky, who as a closeted homosexual felt marginalized. Tatiana, the shy daughter of a local landowner, meets Eugen Onegin, a spoiled globe-trotter who finds everything in life too boring for words, through Lenski, Onegin's best friend, who is engaged to Olga, Tatiana's sister.

During dinner at the girls' mother's estate, Tatiana falls madly in love with Onegin, awakening a set of realizations about life that swirl inside her. That night, she exuberantly asks her nanny to tell her about marriage. Though the nanny's words are full of regret, Tatiana can't be discouraged, and stays up all night pouring her feelings for Onegin into a letter. Soon after, Onegin tells Tatiana that, though he's touched, marriage would bore him, and advises her not to be so open with her emotions in the future. Naturally, Tatiana is crushed.

Konwitschny's production immediately removed any barriers between the performers and the audience. The curtain never lowered the whole evening, the lights remained on until a few minutes into each act, and a section of the opera was even performed from the box seats.

Jolana Fogašová (Olga) was carefree, yet precise, with dusky low notes that were always audible. Jitka Sapara-Fischerová (Nanny) also sang with richness and served well as the cast's musical glue, using crisp downbeats to keep the tempo together. There's no doubt, though, that Act I belonged to Natalia Ushakova (Tatiana), whose Letter Aria is a ten-minute vocal tour de force. Ushakova's expression began naive, but gradually unravelled as she ran the emotional gamut to womanhood.

Konwitschny's staging took some truly inspired turns. As Tatiana held out her letter to Onegin and asked "where are you, my angel?" she stepped onto a silver section of stage around the orchestra pit that led directly in front of the first row of seats in the audience. Ushakova's voice now adopted an angelic, prayerful quality as she pleaded and wandered, literally bringing this opera of "everyday, common feelings" to the people.

The story continues at a ball to celebrate Tatiana's Name Day. Onegin is angry at Lenski for bringing him to such a boring party, so he flirts with Olga, Lenski's fiancée. Lenski's not amused and challenges Onegin to a duel. The next morning, both men arrive with their seconds. They realize they've been rash and wish they could just walk away, but feel bound by the rules of honour. Both shoot and Lenski falls dead.

Unfortunately, most of Lenski's music sits in the middle of Ľudovít Ludha's range, which prevented him from showing off the high notes that define his glorious tone. But in the aria before the duel, in which Lenski reflects on his brief life and how society's rules about honour have doomed it, Ludha's sound flowed with its typical smoothness, dynamic control, and laser-like focus.

Some years later, Onegin has returned home after travelling abroad. While attending a ball, he meets Prince Gremin and the prince's poised and elegant wife, who is none other than Tatiana. Onegin is immediately overwhelmed with passion and longing. When they meet, Tatiana reveals she is still in love with Onegin, who unleashes an emotional barrage, begging her to follow her heart. But Tatiana is bound to her adoring husband and can't disrespect that vow. As Onegin pleads, Tatiana musters one last bit of courage and walks out, leaving Onegin behind.

Peter Mikuláš's (Prince Gremin) aria about finding true love at a mature age was truly touching, with a lullaby tempo, rich texture, loving slurs, and protectiveness. Pavol Remenár (Eugen Onegin) had the right attitude for the role, but his voice lacked depth and expanded only during the opera's final scene. Ushakova sounded more tortured in Act III as she resisted Onegin's temptation, and her voice turned piercing, but never lost its beauty.

Other aspects of Konwitschny's staging were more questionable, such as the rather undignified and raucous game of musical chairs during Act II, but his device of connecting the audience and performers was innovative and just right for this opera.

At curtain call, the cast received a hearty, well-deserved round of applause and Konwitschny's reception was tumultuous.

Eliciting a reaction like that from Bratislava's traditional and usually timid audience is an achievement in itself.

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