Monday 22 August 2016

Much that was superb musically: Eugene Onegin from Belarus at Birgitta Festival in Tallinn

Tchaikovsky Eugene Onegin - Belarus Opera at Birgitta Festival - photo Heiti Kruusmaa
Tchaikovsky Eugene Onegin, Act 1 - National Academic Bolshoi Opera and Ballet of Belarus at Birgitta Festival
photo Heiti Kruusmaa
Tchaikovsky Eugene Onegin; Anastasia Moskvina, Oksana Volkova, Vladimir Petrov, Yuri Gorodetsky, Andrei Valenty, dir: Valery Shishov/Alexander Prokhorenko, cond: Andrey Galanov
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 20 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Fine singing transforms a rather staid production from Belarus at the Birgitta Festival in Tallinn

Vladimir Petrov - Tchaikovsky Eugene Onegin - Belarus Opera at Birgitta Festival - photo Heiti Kruusmaa
Vladimir Petrov - photo Heiti Kruusmaa
For my second visit to the Birgitta Festival in Tallinn, Estonia on 20 August 2016, I heard the National Academic Bolshoi Opera and Ballet of Belarus (based in Minsk) perform Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin. The production, originally from 1986, was revised and refurbished in 2012. Valery Shishov directed the original production, with Alexander Prokhorenko being responsible for the 2012 revision, with designs by Dmitry Mokhov and choreography by Alexandra Tikhomirova. Andrey Galanov conducted, and the cast included Vladimir Petrov as Onegin, Anastasia Moskvina as Tatyana, Oksana Volkova as Olga, Yuri Gorodetsky as Lensky, and Andrey Valenty as Prince Gremin.

Overnight, since the ending of Requiem... and before the previous night (see my review), the temporary theatre within the ruined church of the Pirita Convent had been re-cast as a traditional proscenium theatre with pit. The production was relatively traditional even to using a painted back-drop and suspended flats in a style which has rather gone out of fashion in the UK. But the results had an effective charm, especially when combined with the traditional but well thought out costumes, with the ensembles in each act forming attractive stage pictures.

Anastasia Moskvina, Oksana Volkova - Tchaikovsky Eugene Onegin - Belarus Opera at Birgitta Festival - photo Heiti Kruusmaa
Anastasia Moskvina, Oksana Volkova - photo Heiti Kruusmaa
There was an economy to the design, so the white drapes from the Act Two dance at Madam Larina's re-appeared for the Gremin's ball, and the duel was performed on a re-dressed set of the previous scene. The whole production was firmly set in Pushkin's era, and was a traditional narrative telling of the tale, without any major directorial interventions. The plot was very much taken at face value so any depth or interpretation depended on the individual singers.

That mounting the production in such a short time was a challenge was indicated by some haphazard moments in the lighting plot. And the depth of the stage was clearly less than that in Minsk, as there was some awkwardness in fitting the choreography of the polonaise in Act Three to the new layout.

The overall production style was traditional too, not to say rather staid and old-fashioned with none of the detailed naturalism and personen-regie that we have come to expect in the West. Anastasia Moskvina's impassiveness as Tatyana in the first two acts rather made the character seem dim, and only Yuri Gorodetsky as Lensky created a sense of visual character; with his long hair (his own) and slight frame he looked every inch the fragile poet.

This was a performance which was all about the voices and musically there was very much that was superb.

Yuri Gorodetsky - Tchaikovsky Eugene Onegin - Belarus Opera at Birgitta Festival - photo Heiti Kruusmaa
Yuri Gorodetsky - photo Heiti Kruusmaa
Moskvina's Tatyana might have looked impassive, but she certainly did not sound it particularly in the letter scene. The problem was, of course, that the performance was amplified for the temporary theatre (it seems a shame that the festival cannot find an acoustical solution which would do without this or use it more discreetly). So my impressions of the voices are filtered through this medium.

Vladimir Petrov cut a rather severe not to say mature figure as Onegin. Though he sang the role admirably he brought neither swagger nor seduction either to his demeanour or to his singing. For the first two acts this was an officer-like Onegin, almost as if Prince Gremin had got marooned in the wrong part of the plot. And in the crucial third scene of Act One, his attitude to Moskvina's Tatyana came over as rather too much the sever father. Petrov unbent a little in the climactic final scene, but it was difficult to see what drew Tatyana to him.

Ektaterina Mikhnovets, Anastasia Moskvina - Tchaikovsky Eugene Onegin - Belarus Opera at Birgitta Festival - photo Heiti Kruusmaa
Ektaterina Mikhnovets, Anastasia Moskvina - photo Heiti Kruusmaa
Anastasia Moskvina made a vibrant Tatyana. She as a bright, forward sounding voice which lent youth to the performance, and she sang with a freedom and intensity which belied her demeanour. Of course, it didn't help visually that she was saddled with a rather harsh and unflattering black wig. Musically the letter scene was one of the most vivid I have heard. There was nothing grand about her performance, she was flexible and fluent in her phrasing, pouring out the scene in sustained lyric intensity. And in the final scenes of the opera, she brought a greater sense of maturity and poise.

As I have said, Yuri Gorodetsky as Lensky was perhaps the most fully rounded of characters. He has a lyric voice with just the right amount of cutting edge, very much a Slav style lyric tenor. In the first act he made Lensky interesting and rather sexy, developing a petulance in Act Two. The climax was rightly a superbly phrased account of the Act Two aria, perhaps the high-point of the opera. Gorodetsky and Oksana Volkova as Olga did develop something of a believably youthful relationship. And Volkova's wonderfully dark mezzo-soprano voice contrasted wit her lively, almost flirty demeanour.

Andrei Valenty - Tchaikovsky Eugene Onegin - Belarus Opera at Birgitta Festival - photo Heiti Kruusmaa
Andrei Valenty - photo Heiti Kruusmaa
Andrei Valenty was a silver fox of a Prince Gremin. Frankly sexier than Petrov's Onegin, you thought that this Tatyana had done rather well for herself, and at the very end having witnessed Onegin's importuning of Tatyana, Valenty's Gremin showed tender care to her. It helped that Valenty has a thrilling dark bass voice used intelligently to great effect in Gremin's aria.

The smaller roles were all superbly sung with a balance to the casting which most opera companies would envy. Natalya Akinina and Ekaterina Mikhnovets made a well matched pair as Larina and Filippyevna. Akinina was a dignified Madame Larina, full of charm. Mikhnovets as Filippyevna was, I suspect, a lot younger than her role. The two blended nicely in the lovely opening quartet (with Anastasia Moskvina and Oksana Volkova off stage), and in the letter scene Mikhnovets was touching. Alexander Gelakh was a charming Monsieur Triquet, not as much of a caricature as in some performances. The strength of casting extended to Sergei Lazarevitch as Rotny and Dmitri Kapilov as Zaretsky.

The chorus was not highly mobile, they tended to take up a position and certainly hardly danced. The main dancing was done by the corps de ballet, with an impressive 24 dancers fielded for the ball. This division between a singing chorus and a dancing corps de ballet meant that the production's dance scenes lacked the important inclusive social element, but I understand that this division is typical of Russian productions of the opera. Musically the chorus gave no disappointment, singing with enthusiasm and lively tone. Within the performance parameters they were delightfully engaging, particularly in the opening act and were clearly full of enthusiasm.

Tchaikovsky Eugene Onegin - Belarus Opera at Birgitta Festival - photo Heiti Kruusmaa
Tchaikovsky Eugene Onegin - Belarus Opera at Birgitta Festival - photo Heiti Kruusmaa
There was a highly sculptural quality to the orchestra's phrasing under conductor Andrey Galanov and it felt just right. Granted the music lacked a certain improvisatory freedom, but this was more than compensated for by the felicitous delights of the way the detail of the orchestration were brought out, and the phrasing complemented the music.

Despite my reservations about the quality of the amplified sound, it was a complete delight to hear an entire cast of native Russian speakers performing this opera. And the musical performance really transcended the sound limitations. Strong individual performances brought real vibrancy even though the dramatic style was a trifle stately and impassive.

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