What Could Have Been: Yevgeny Onegin at the Teatr Wielki – Opera Narodowa

Tchaikovsky – Yevgeny Onegin (Евгений Онегин)

Tatyana – Anna Nechaeva
Olga – Liliana Istratii
Larina – Joanna Motulewicz
Filippyevna – Anna Lubańska
Lensky – Andrzej Lampert
Yevgeny Onegin – Stanisław Kuflyuk
Triquet – Krzysztof Szmyt
Zaretski – Robert Dymowski
Prince Gremin – Sergii Magera

Chór i Orkiestra Teatru Wilkiego – Opery Narodowej / Andriy Yurkevych.
Stage director – Mariusz Treliński.

Teatr Wielki– Opera Narodowa, Warsaw, Poland.  Sunday, June 9th, 2019.

In the letter scene of Yevgeny Onegin, Tatyana asks ‘who are you? My guardian angel or a wily tempter?’.  This line appears to be a starting point for Mariusz Treliński’s 2002 staging of the work, revived tonight at Warsaw’s Teatr Wielki – Opera Narodowa.  Our first image of the evening is a ghoulish figure, perambulating around the apron at the front of the stage.  He reappears frequently, interacting with Tatyana during the letter scene or at other times being sighted at the back of the stage.  Later, he appears mourning Lensky after the duel or dancing briefly with Tatyana during her name day party.

Photo: © Krzysztof Bieliński / Polish National Opera

This idea of reflection on younger days is a most pertinent one and feels true to a vision of the work founded on the reflection that comes with loss and those ever-present questions of what might have been.  Treliński puts a lot of the weight of the show on the shoulders of his singers, particularly in the first few scenes.  His stage pictures at the Larin estate are sparse, a claustrophobic environment where there’s limited interaction with outsiders – the sparseness goes as far as cutting the opening peasants’ chorus.  It did feel to an extent that the evening took a while to take wing.  Anna Nechaeva’s letter scene was beautifully vocalized, but felt somewhat anonymous dramatically and interpretatively, perhaps as a result of her focusing on interaction with the ghostly figure; partly also due to Andriy Yurkevych’s rather earthbound conducting.

Photo: © Krzysztof Bieliński / Polish National Opera

Where the evening really started to take wing was in Tatyana’s name day party.  Treliński set up a visually fascinating scene that seemed to hover between the real and the imagined.  Was Krzysztof Szmyt’s foppish Triquet with his flying fairy sidekick real?  Were the dancers with deer heads?  Or were they just a figment of Tatyana’s imagination?  Similarly, the rigid succession of figures who walked through the polonaise – were they a succession of Onegin’s former lovers or figures of a society that thrived on conformity.  While Treliński might not give us all the answers, he certainly provokes reflection, as well as giving us much to reflect upon.

Photo: © Krzysztof Bieliński / Polish National Opera

The other reason the evening seemed to take wing after the name day celebrations was due to Andrzej Lampert’s electrifying Lensky.  He appeared to single-handedly change the direction of the evening.  His ‘kuda, kuda?’ was mesmerizing, sung with precisely the sense of wistfulness and longing it requires.  His tenor is in fine shape, robust and easily produced, always sung off the text.  He held the stage, producing a spell so enchanting that when he received his well-deserved ovation at the end of his aria, it felt that something magical had been broken.

Photo: © Krzysztof Bieliński / Polish National Opera

Anna Nechaeva is the owner of a striking soprano of good weight and an exciting metallic edge.  The sound itself is fabulous at full volume, filling the house in thrilling waves of ecstatic sound, particularly in a final scene, sung from the stage-front apron, that soared gloriously.  At the same time, I must admit that I left with the impression that Nechaeva isn’t quite ‘finished’ as an interpreter, the letter scene, in particular, somewhat anonymous.  The voice also has a tendency to sit slightly under the note.  It is, without doubt, a splendid instrument but not quite the finished article.  Stanisław Kuflyuk replaced the originally-cast Mariusz Kwiecień in the title role.  He seemed very much at home in this staging, his slightly cold, detached manner ideally matched to Treliński’s concept.  The voice is in good shape – big and resonant with a warm, healthy core and an easy line.

Photo: © Krzysztof Bieliński / Polish National Opera

In the remainder of the cast, Sergii Magera sang Gremin with a big, booming bass.  Liliana Istratii sang Olga with impeccable textual awareness and an easy, sunny mezzo.  Joanna Motulewicz made an impression as Larina with a silky, fruity mezzo, while Anna Lubańska’s Filippyevna was full of character.  The house chorus sang with firm, youthful tone and immaculate tuning, which made it all the more regrettable that they were denied their opening chorus.

Photo: © Krzysztof Bieliński / Polish National Opera

The house orchestra played decently for Yurkevych, the odd, passing moment of sour string intonation notwithstanding.  Yurkevych favoured tempi that were languorous and thoughtful, often to the detriment of forward momentum.  For instance, as Tatyana and Onegin reminisced about their lives in the final scene, the tempo seemed to ground to a halt.  There were also a few moments along the way where it felt the singers wanted to keep things moving.  Still, the winds were full of personality and while the brass didn’t always attack their entries unanimously, they were on good behaviour all night.

Photo: © Krzysztof Bieliński / Polish National Opera

This was a more than respectable Onegin.  We were given a thoughtful and intelligent staging, one that mined deep into the work to explore its themes of loss, memory and non-conformity in a world were few are different.  If there were perhaps one too many visual insights to fully take in on a first viewing, it still made for a fascinating evening in the theatre.  Respectably sung and played – and even more than that in the case of Lampert’s Lensky – the evening was rapturously received by the Warsaw public who gave it a standing ovation.

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