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|A CurtainUp Review
By David Lipfert
Teatre of Moscow more than lives up to its name with what must be termed an adaptation of Eugene Onegin. Tchaikovsky's three-act lyric drama is presented in a single act lasting just over two hours after excising most of the dance music and choruses as well as most scene endings. What is left makes for an experience much closer to reading the original poem by Aleksandr Pushkin.
The rapid pace leaves little time for reflection on the social context as in the Tchaikovsky original. Instead, the focus is exclusively on the relationships between the principal characters, a metaphor for the recent changes in Russian society from emphasizing the collective to elevating the individual. The ending in this edition follows Tchaikovsky's original, with a quiet musical epilogue (without chorus) much like in the composer's later Pique Dame rather than the revised speedy-curtain dramatic ending we are familiar with.
Sergey Artsibashev's direction alternates between stylized for the principals and the more customary stage interaction among soloists and chorus. Much of the time, the principals are standing very close to the front facing the audience while scarcely looking at each other.
What is largely missing in this iconic vision is expression. Even a concert performance of an opera requires facial and some body expression, perhaps with limited gesturing. Above all, coloring the voice is necessary to fully convey the characters' strong feelings in this highly emotional drama. Few of the young soloists give much of themselves vocally. As Lensky, Marat Gareyev has many touching moments. The women were mostly lackluster except for Emma Sarkisyan who uses her sensuous contralto as Nanny. As if to compensate for the others, Mikhail Dyakov as Onegin, puts his vocal apparatus under such strain that a long career would be out of the question.
Novaya's unit set consists of an eight-foot green wall at the sides and rear punctuated by paired doors made of white grill. An armchair or two are the only furniture. The unchanging set for this libretto is practical but unfortunate, because Pushkin set each scene at a specific time of year. The stage at the Martin Beck Theatre is transformed with an additional raised playing area jutting out into the house. A substantial 60-piece orchestra inhabits the area below with an overflow area in the right balcony. Early 19th-century costumes are of the period of the Pushkin poem, but with solid colors for the female and customary black for the male principals. The chorus is in white, grey and black, but at least are not dressed alike.
The main attraction of the evening is conductor Evgeny Kolobov and his marvelous sixty-piece orchestra. Their playing is first-rate. Mr. Kolobov communicates the sweep of Tchaikovsky's phrases with flair. Certain passages like the one scored for violas and cellos which leads up to Onegin and Lensky's duel are powerful beyond description. Mr. Kolobov has extracted the most prominent woodwind solos from the first chair parts and reassigned them to a quartet in the balcony. These instrumentalists play extensively for example during Tatiana's Letter Scene to form a kind of dialogue between them with the vocal soloist. This rereading of the Tchaikovsky score makes for an interesting effect. Otherwise the four double their respective instruments' lines during the tutti sections.
An interesting feature of this performance is that the orchestra is on the same level as the public. The use of a pit to create a "magic gulf" between stage and audience dates only to the later 19th century, so Novaya's arrangement at the Martin Beck replicates the way this opera would have been heard in its earliest performances. With this placement, the sound becomes more immediate and musical details emphasized. Except in a few passages with brass, Mr. Kolobov mostly avoids the potential problem of the later and louder versions of the modern orchestral instruments that we use today drowning out the singers.
Running time is about 2 hours 10 minutes. English surtitles are provided.