Welsh National opera, with its residence in Cardiff and traditional tours through various British cities, has prepared a unique and ambitious project for the year 2017, the year of the Centennary of Russian revolition, staging three Russian-related operas which reveal the depths of the Russian character to Western audiences. The cycle starts with Tchaikovsky’s lyric opera Eugene Onegin, and shows the romantic, elegant, melancholic and still innocent side of Russian character in the famous Pushkin’s story of Tatyana’s love to Onegin and his belated passion towards her which does not bring anybody happiness. The second one, Musorgsky’s Khovanshchina, plunges the listener into the troubled 17 th century and shows the rebellious forces of the Russian spirit which have been historically present. The third – Janácek’s From the House of the Dead has been purposefully edited by John Tyrrell (based on recommendations of the late Charles Mackerras) for this production, as for many years the composer’s last opera was performed with re-worked orchestration by Osvald Chlubna. It shows another important side of Russian history – that of the prison life in Syberia. The story portrayed is in the 19 th century, but later Alexander Solzhenitsyn continued Dostoevsky’s tradition of depicting daily routine of Soviet convicts in Gulag. Only the two – Eugene Onegin and From the House of the Dead were brought to Oxford due to restrictions of the stage size in Oxford’s New Theatre, but this double bill gave the audiences the perfect contrast of love and death, freedom and imprisonment, with a constant tinge of melancholy, repressed sufferings and strength of spirit revealed.
Quite interestingly, the conductors for both productions were specifically chosen for their connection with the respective opera and experience with a particular composer. Thus, Eugene Onegin was conducted with moving lightness and vividness by Riga-born Ainārs Rubiķis who studied in Nobosibirk, Russia, while Janáček was given by WNO into the hands of the composer’s compatriot Tomáš Hanus. Interestingly, the orchestra was brought into more limelight that is the usual practice in the opera house due to New Theatre lacking a pit, and thus became an equal and powerful participant of both productions, with audiences in the first rows
having the chance to scrutinize the musicians’ work at a close distance. This situation brought different results in two production. In From the House of the Dead the sounds of Janáček’s innovative, rippling score which deliberately avoided harmonious sounds but was incredibly rich and inventive in orchestration sometimes overpowered the vocal parts which were mainly based on intimate story-telling. In Eugene Onegin, on the contrary, the orchestra, while also being more prominent than usual, was led forward by Rubiķis with incredible elegance and vicacity verging on playfulness, and created a perfect and beautiful atmosphere for singers to develop their parts, while reminding us of the constant interplay between Tchaikovsky’s orchestration and his vocal score.
Eugene Onegin is directed by James Macdonald (the former Associate Director of the Royal Court Theatre). It is staged by Tobias Tobias Hoheisel in a double stylistic decision. On the one hand, thу stage design stirs away from the historical realism in its minimalism in furnishing the stage with objects of furniture and replacing the walls with big moving cream - coloured and multi-shaped diagonal frames with the sun/moonlight beautifully falling on them (lighting designer Andreas Grüter). But within the labyrinths of frames which seem to symbolise the intricate depths of human soul, the costumes and the choreography (cotillons and mazurkas are faithfully rendered by singers under the supevision of Stuart Hopps) are exquisite in their detail and true to the period. There is a quite unusual casting of Lensky who is played by Jason Bridges as a tall, corpulent man with beautiful wavy hair. He does not seem younger than Onegin, on the contrary, it is Nicholas Lester’s Onegin that seems to be more capricious and unexperienced in his reactions to newly-found love – first Tatyana’s and then his own. Onegin, in turn, acquires a wavy bush of hair in the third act, thus, it seems, visually acquiring the same romanticism as Lensky had and becoming – a bit too late - his soul brother rather than antagonist. The duel scene between the two is exceptionally touching – Lester’s Onegin and Bridges’ Lensky with their matching statures are always a step apart from ending the duel, and Onegin is stone-struck by his friend’s death and becomes a poweful statue stricken with sorrow in the end of the second act. Bridges’ ‘Where have you gone, my days of golden youth’ aria is a pearl sung beautifully with the nuanced balance of acceptance, humility, poetry and grief.
While Olga (Claudia Huckle) is a nice and lively sister with quite expectable vocal
lightness and matching light-heartedness, it is Tatyana (Natalya Romaniw, a Welsh singer with Ukrainian heritage) who stands out both visually and vocally. With her broad, Slavic face and the strength of stage presence when she is sitting or writing, or plunging into the river of youthful passion, or using all her reserve to contain her emotions, Romaniw creates an unforgettable character of Tatyana. She complements it with her powerful voice and her mastery of the part’s range, choosing strong temperament over shyness, emotional strength over inexperience in her rendering of the character, revealing her continous trust in her chosen one –
Onegin. In their duets Onegin, similar to his self-positioning with regards to Lensky, is never too far from loving her – he always shows tenderness to Tatyana even when singing to the opposite.
The final scenes in Tatyana’s quarters in St Petersburg with their hushed green-brown hues may remind the British audience of romantic English novels (some trace of Wuthering Heights in Onegin’s troubled presence behind the window), and also of Tchaikovsky’s Dame of Piques, and bring the emotionally rich, albeit sad, closure to this beautiful lyrical masterpiece. From the House of the Dead on the next day was staged in a stark contrast to the Onegin, but, interestingly, is resembling to it in one aspect. Maria Björnson’s design is also a metaphor of the human soul – not an entangled labyrinth of emotions, but a sagging, half-ruined and crumbled mould which was formerly a castle of human life. It far from being a realistic representation of conditions of life in Syberian prison, as this multi-layered carcass of a building with its multiple levels, ladders, falling and missing bricks which stands under the open sky could hardly house convicts in severe Russian winters. But Janáček’s libretto and subsequent opera are also only loosely based on Dostoevsky’s novel and rather try to create a powerful symphonic panno of sufferings of the fallen soul. The eagle is caged in this prison and, as main character Goryanchikov (Ben McAteer) is released, the bird is also flying high above through the projection on the prison’s walls, with its wing movements copied by other convicts. David Pountney (also the author of English translation from Czech), the renowned director known for discovering the lesser known operas, treats the production as a powerful theatrical image. He brings into focus the eternal circle of prison life reminding the audiences of Van Gogh’s Prisoners’ Round and pays attention to details of prisoner’s life and emotions.
Their condition in the pit of human life are similar to those of beggars in Maxim Gorky’s play ‘The Lower Depths’, and they similarly have fallen to the abyss after the commited crimes which are described operatically on stage through their emotional and sometimes violent story-telling. The characters on stage are the Tartar boy Alyeya (Paula Greenwood) who treats Goryanchikov as his father, Luka Kuzmich who turns out to be the lost Filka Morozov (Mark Le Brocq), Skuratov (Alan Oke), Shapkin (Adrian Thompson), Shishkov (Simon Bailey) and they all have their sad story of crime to tell. In the Easter scene where citizens bring food to convicts
the ephemeral girl in white (Lillyella-Mai Robertson) observes them with innocent wonder and seems to be their lost soul helplessly hovering above. Although Goryanchikov is released, the circle of imprisonment continues, with only brief flickers of entertainment like two self-made shows performed by the prisoners serving as disruptions from its greasly continuity. Janáček’s score seems to forget about harmony along with the loss of dignity in human life on stage. The Czech composer renders the arrythmia of this life with sudden bursts from the densely inhabited percussion section, as well as from the orchestra’s violas and cellos, as though the broken human voices try to reach out to heavens even from the disrupted choir of musical instruments. Tomáš Hanus is conducting this difficult piece with braveness and mastery of the highest level equalling the ambitious, but rewarding challenge of the whole Russian-season endeavour undertaken by the Welsh National Opera this autumn.
Photo credits: Eugene Onegin - Betina Skovbro
Photo credits: From the House of Dead - Clive Barda