(Onegin—canadian opera company)———i imagine that the first and inescapable creative choice one would have to make in producing this opera is to decide, figuratively, which of Madame Larina’s daughters will represent the spirit of the creative vision: will it be the robust and ‘vivacious’ Olga or the bookish, ‘dreamy and reserved’ Tatyana?—robert carsen’s production of tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin for our very own canadian opera company is a characteristically minimal, abbreviated and cerebral interpretation of alexander pushkin’s novel turned opera. at about 160 minutes long, this opera is just too big to be parsed neatly as exemplary of a singular ethic or aesthetic—there are many a densely-packed arias and mumbling pieces for orchestra to wade through—but the mood throughout, that atmosphere for whose sake the 20 minute intermission was not long enough a period of recovery, was very much of an austere dreamscape. despite carsen’s best intentions, this production was Tatyana’s world—and we were all living in it:
When we first began to work on our production, we noticed that sometimes Tatyana tends to dominate the narrative. But ultimately it is Eugene Onegin’s story, so we thought it would be interesting to tell it as much as possible from his point of view. “” robert carsen, notes for the production
i had mistakenly arrived at the performance thinking this was my first experience of carsen’s artistry; aside from all the buzz and applause around his production of Falstaff in 2014, i was sure i was fresh and virginal to the celebrated carsen experience. and it would’ve remained unbeknownst to me had it not been for the COC’s brilliantly informative program booklet, that carsen was also the masterful mind behind my very first operatic experience way back in 2011 with his Iphigénie en Tauride. like Onegin, that production too found its style in how much it left to the imagination by way of a theatrical impressionism—
We tried also to let the memories of the seven scenes develop around Onegin, in an almost impressionistic way, with the scenes flowing from one to another without the need for any elaborate scenic changes. “” robert carsen, notes for the production
—much of the very little that i recall from that performance has to do with its bleak and silhouetted mise-en-scene——and a lot of chalk. in that same sense: what will i remember, seven years on, of his Eugene Onegin? try as i did to memorize as many subtle shades of autumnal goldochre that the ‘revival’ light designer (christine binder) meticulously staged, i doubt i’ll remember much more than christophe mortagne’s Monsieur Triquet; or that awkwardly oblong trap door in Tatyana’s ‘room’ that was each time opened with the utmost suspicion as to its reliability…; and the whole field-full of leaves that were perpetually falling, kicked around, swept or imaginatively stacked as the only interactive part of the setting in act one. (it’s a relief this production wraps up early november else there’s a risk of a sizeable portion of audience members who, after half a morning of raking leaves, pay to sit through 80 minutes of opera singers sloshing through faux-foliage…! yet again proof of just how much of taste is timing).
Pushkin’s original work, however, is much cooler, distant and critical in tone, and so we also tried — where appropriate — to re-capture some of the distinctive spirit of the original. “” robert carsen, notes for the production
‘where appropriate’?—all seven scenes felt cool, distant, and critical; like colourful rear-view-window vignettes of memories recalled from an immeasurable distance, cued to discreet music (the jolting gunshot in scene 2 of act 2 is one of the few moments it felt as if something was presently happening…). that seems to have been the intention, especially when one recalls the opening action that accompanied the musical prelude: the title character is draped over a chair with an exaggerated solitude, his spotlight is soft and lukewarm as crisp sunburnt leaves begin fall gently all about him. it’s an absolutely gorgeous scene. one whose significance would have soared when we come full circle at the end, if only most of the remaining seven acts weren’t also leaf-littered and melancholic mnemonic post-cards.
the story of Eugene Onegin is one that finds and enjoys its strength in contrasts. contrasts between people at the same stage in
life but heading in different directions. the subtle contrasts, for example, between the Olga and Tatyana; between Onegin and Lensky—between Onegin before and after killing Lensky. subtleties of that kind often benefit more from the excesses of dramatic expression than a cool and distant tone.
joyce el-khoury’s Tatyana was as believable as it was fantastic—her nocturnal aria in scene 2 of act 1 was the highlight of the evening. indeed it’s such individual performances that were the many saving graces of the evening. margaret lattimore (in her COC mainstage debut) filled the role of Filipyevna with the all right cadences and sufficient amount of tongue-in-cheekiness. christophe mortagne was an enthusiastic Monsieur Triquet, staying in character even through curtain-call—it’s one of those essential comedic reliefs you can’t really go wrong it, in the same species as Parpignol in the COC’s upcoming La Boheme. aside from those, the rest of the performances were just enough to wring out the customary minute-long ovations for curtain-call.
this production was absolutely brilliant; everything i’ve said follows after that fact.