Opera done differently

Last night I attended the Opera Nuova production of the Tchaikovsky opera Eugene Onegin.

It was fascinating.  It has one more performance, tonight at 7:30 at the Oasis Centre in northwest Edmonton.  If you like music or theatre and you aren’t sure if you like opera, this might be a good one to try.

Mind you, there are lots of other opportunities here to see outsider-accessible opera, thanks to the imaginative programming of Edmonton Opera.  But Opera Nuova tickets are less expensive, and this production makes fabulous use of its location.

I believe that’s called “site-sympathetic”.  On arrival at the Oasis Centre, audience members had an opportunity to buy food and drink in the lobby, and then we were directed to seats in a back garden amphitheatre.  I noticed that the audience included some families with children, and a wide range of dress from festive to casual.  (I was relieved about this, since I hadn’t gotten dressed up myself.)   We were seated on comfortable chairs around three sides of a courtyard (and some people were standing up too).  In the periphery I could see some attractive landscaping with pathways and an artificial waterfall.

Opera Nuova artistic director and this show’s director, Kim Mattice-Wanat, spoke from the covered bandstand where the orchestra was seated, explaining that later scenes would be set indoors and we would be directed where and when to move.  The sung lyrics would be in Russian, but instead of supertitles we would be given additional glimpses into what was going to happen by a narrator reading some description between scenes or units, Kelly Handerek, There was also a plot summary in the program.

During some instrumental music (overture?) by a 12 piece orchestra under the direction of Gordon Gerrard, some performers entered and seated themselves on garden benches.  The younger women turned out to be sisters Olga (Amanda Weatherall) and Tatiana (Jordanne Erichsen).  The older woman with spectacles, kerchief, and apron was Filipievna, the girls’ old nurse.  I was immediately charmed and impressed that she knitted a sock on four needles throughout the first scene, with the practised ease of an experienced knitter.  The fourth woman in the scene was Madame Larina (Zoë Gotziaman) the girls’ mother.   As advised by the narrator, I could see that Olga was the more outgoing sister, swept away in romance with visiting Lensky (River Guard), while Tatiana seemed to be head-down in her novel for most of the first couple of scenes before becoming awkwardly aware of equally-awkward eponymous Onegin (Aaron Murphy).  I got thinking about Pride and Prejudice at this point, and about how the socially-awkward one who started out seeming rude was actually the happy-ending suitor in that story.  (And then I started thinking about Colin Firth, and then I started thinking about Cordelia in King Lear too, and I was trying to figure out whether I liked this Onegin character or not.  I definitely liked Tatiana right away though.)

At some point in the outdoor scenes, the large ensemble also entered as farm labourers presenting the landlords with sheaves and baskets to celebrate the harvest, and dancing and singing in approximately-folkloric dress.   During the outdoor scenes, various characters and couples made use of the attractive forest paths and lawns.  The actors were all wearing headset microphones (which is not the usual practice for opera, although it is common in musical theatre for larger auditoriums).   The sound quality was not perfect, but was surprisingly good given the industrial-park site with large trucks driving by and windy weather.

The audience was then invited indoors, first to seats around an area set up as Tatiana’s bedroom.  Jordanne Erichsen was especially impressive in this scene, singing solo through almost the whole scene while conveying the emotions of being unexpectedly in love and taking the risk of writing to Onegin to ask if he would consider marriage.

Subsequent scenes shifted to the other side of the auditorium.  Short intermissions were taken as needed, not necessarily when the traditional 3-act structure prescribed.  Onegin turns down Tatiana in what looked to me like an emo mansplaining condescension (“I wouldn’t make you a good husband.  I prefer to be alone”) but then kind of rubbed it in by dancing with her sister at her name-day ball.  This led to an argument with his friend Lensky, Olga’s fiancé, and to a duel in which Lensky dies.  In these scenes I liked Triquet (Sebastien Comtois) who regaled Tatiana with French poetry, and Zaretsky (Xuguang Zhang) who seemed keen on promoting the duel and brought them the pistols.

We didn’t get to find out much about what happened to Olga after that, although in the scene three years later, she was standing to the side with her mother and no escort, watching Tatiana and her high-ranking husband welcome guests to a ball.  The dancing and costumes for the three ensemble-dance pieces (the labourers at harvest, the local friends at the name-day dance, and Prince Gremin’s ball) increased in complexity and spectacle commensurate with the class differences and were all fun to watch.  Choreography was by Marie Nychka and costumes by Betty Kolodziej.  The convention of having the chorus members all freeze in place while the principals acted and sang solos was a bit jarring at first but became easy to ignore.  Onegin predictably comes to regret his earlier rejection of Tatiana, and she now turns him down.  This would be a happy and fair ending if Tatiana were in love with Gremin, but her acting conveys that she would rather be with Onegin, but alas! duty and honour and marital vows.  So it’s sad.

It’s a long performance, but I didn’t mind and mostly didn’t even notice. I don’t understand Russian, didn’t know the story ahead of time, and didn’t recognize the melodies except for a bit that was vaguely familiar from Bugs Bunny (I won’t tell you where!), but I’m very glad I was able to see this opera.   Opera Nuova’s festival of opera and musical theatre continues tonight with a second performance of Eugene Onegin, has a concert Saturday night, and later in the month moves to Festival Place for productions of The Cunning Little Vixen (with supertitles) and Carousel.  Tickets to all are available on-line and at the door.

Onegin 1

Simon Chalifoux, as Prince Gremin, and his wife Tatiana Gremina (Jordanne Erichsen), in front of an unhappy Eugene Onegin (Aaron Murphy)

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