Eugene Onegin

Date: April 24, 2010
Conductor: Alexander Polianichko
Director: Dmitri Tcherniakov
Location: The National Centre for the Performing Arts (The Egg), Beijing.

Bolshoi in Beijing.

The Bolshoi Theatre opened this year’s NCPA Opera Festival with Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. The entire production set was shipped in from Moscow, and nearly 400 artists (on-stage and off-stage) traveled to Beijing to deliver a spirited rendition of Tchaikovsky’s beloved masterpiece.

Dmitri Tcherniakov’s production is a warhorse and a money-minting machine, having already traveled to many opera houses around the world, including the Paris Opera, Bunka Kaikan in Tokyo, and Scala. The production set was basically comprised of two setups: a community room in the countryside of Acts 1 and 2, and an urban enclave for the privileged class of Act 3. Each room was set with a huge table as its centerpiece, with people gathering around it and managing their own business. The same table that was used by a lively, almost unruly community of rural villagers was also the place of solidarity for inspiring Tatyana’s letter writing. In Act 3, that same table was reused, after being cloaked with a white table cloth, as the pedestal on which Gremin’s lavish spread of silverwares and decorative excess – and by extension his wealth and stature – were showcased. The rooms were visually differentiable only through wall colors – an agrarian washed grey versus a lush burgundy red – as well as subtle props such as lighting fixtures – simple, unobtrusive decorative lighting versus an opulent chandelier spanning nearly half the proscenium’s width. It was thus through subtle visual clues that Tcherniakov laid out the settings in which the characters then flourished.

The evening’s leading lady was Ekaterina Scherbachenko, whose Tatyana was a hopeless romantic, a lovely and lovable dreamer who was shy, slightly introverted but full of passion. Scherbachenko, the most-recent Cardiff winner, entered her passages with confidence, and exhibited a scintillating upper extension as well as a firm, sultry lower register. If there was any tentativeness to her top notes, her persuasive acting made it sound like she was deliberately trying to mirror the role’s reclusive psychology.

Roman Shulakov was by comparison expressionless as Lenski, and his stage presence was rather paltry. His voice failed to project for much of the evening, and at times felt strained and hassled. It was not until his big aria at the end of Act 2 when he came to full force, as if a magic switch in his vocal instrument was suddenly turned on and all the dynamism and gravity that were heretofore lacking suddenly came to the fore. The emotive narrative associated with Lenski finally twirled in, even as Lenski was ready to head for his permanent exit. The subsequent applause was lukewarm, albeit due mostly to Alexander Polianichko’s iron-fisted timekeeping. Shulakov’s effort was not fully redeemed until his solo curtain call.

Vladislav Sulimsky’s Onegin was the insensitive, cocky playboy that Pushkin wrote him to be. A man’s man, Sulimsky’s Onegin had to resort to kneeling in front of Tatyana in the final scene to beg for another chance. That moment, assuming not improvised, was perhaps Tcherniakov’s nod to feminist power – the virulent concentration of egocentric testosterone shall eventually be defeated and humiliated.

Following the Russian tradition, the Triquet couplet was sung by Shulakov in Russian. Mikhail Kazakov delivered a rounded bass as Prince Gremin, and secured one of the most enthusiastic audience responses of the evening. Under the baton of Polianichko, the company delivered a sprightly analysis of the Russian composer’s masterpiece, though at times he seemed to have a hard time balancing the dynamics of a plump orchestra with the smaller voices on stage.

This production could be better: the centerpiece table, while pristine to look at, became stale as a theatrical display after about three scenes. The stage could have moved slightly forward towards the edge of the proscenium apron to reduce the distance between the soloists and the audience. Also, Bolshoi had two perfect chances during the waltz and the polonaise to showcase its ballet troupe, but professional dancing was nowhere to be found here – in my opinion a glaring programming mistake especially since its ballet troupe, already in town for La fille du Pharaon and Don Quixote, is world class. These small blemishes weren’t fatal, but they do compel one to ponder the what-ifs. But if anything, the revelatory presence of Scherbachenko has saved the day.

Bolshoi in Beijing.

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