Closing matinée for Onegin

This afternoon’s late matinée at 4:30 pm was the final performance for Eugene Onegin in the Canadian Opera Company’s fall season. Weekend audiences can be a bit of a challenge especially in the afternoon. Oh sure, we’re all relaxed in our seats, meditative, lost in thought.

And so quiet.

Yawn.

That can make it a daunting task to excite such a crowd, leaning back half-asleep in their seats. No wonder they gave us (the Saturday at 4:30 pm subscribers) the closing performance and not opening night, when the COC would want a wildly excited group.

While the soloists were certainly competent, the stars of the show for me were the chorus.

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(l-r, foreground) Oleg Tsibulko as Prince Gremin and Gordon Bintner as Eugene Onegin with the COC chorus ( photo: Michael Cooper)

It’s fitting that I saw COC chorus-master Sandra Horst during intermission, and went up to her to tell her what a wonderful job her charges were doing.  And then I asked her if –now that the run is over– I could get those beautiful, energetic leaf-sweepers to come over to my house: because my yard is full of leaves. Sigh that would be lovely indeed whether or not they were singing.

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In this scene from Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin,” the women of the Lyric Opera chorus play Russian peasants sweeping away the autumn leaves. (Photo: Todd Rosenberg)

I realized today that Robert Carsen’s production (whether we’re speaking of its Toronto incarnation in 2018, its earlier visits to Chicago Lyric Opera, as in the above photo or the Met) all employ the chorus cleverly to help tell the story. They are the rustics in the opening act, laying the groundwork for the story, but also the most energetic people on the stage for the first hour.

When it’s time for Onegin to make Lensky jealous, it’s against a backdrop of the cotillion. We don’t ever see it danced. Instead we are tantalized by the chorus, going pair by pair, enthused and excited by the romance that is this dance, one that poor Lensky won’t get to do, as Onegin grabbed Olga first. With every passing pair of choristers, we see the growing resentment of a jealous lover.

Let’s be honest here. If it weren’t for Carsen, this might look really stupid. Lensky more or less blows a gasket, becoming jealous and fighting a duel with Onegin over very little in the score, next to nothing. Ah but Carsen makes a whole lot more out of it, by using the chorus in this way.  He not only makes the opera more intelligible, he makes it better.  The COC chorus are wonderful singers but at moments like this contribute wonderful theatre.

This was my second look at the production, a week after seeing the closing performance of Hadrian, and it struck me how many parallels there are between the two operas.

Both Hadrian and Eugene Onegin are baritones in the title roles.

A soprano gets the meatiest singing in both operas, rejected by the baritone (Sabina in
Hadrian, Tatyana in Onegin).

A tenor dies a kind of sacrificial death, that leaves the baritone mourning for the rest of the opera.

Both operas bring us to a scene at the end where we’re remembering & agonizing over a romantic encounter from years before.

Need I mention the most obvious parallel? both composers were male homosexuals.

Rufus Wainwright lives in a time when this is not a big deal, at least on this side of the Atlantic. When I googled I saw something suggesting that in Russia this is still problematic for Tchaikovsky. But never mind that. The point is, Rufus Wainwright & Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky were both in some sense gay.

A big difference is that RW’s sexuality is not something hidden or repressed, whereas PT was living the normal life of the time, seeking to be assimilated into normal polite society and unable to freely declare his feelings. This means he concealed his sexuality, as many still do to this day in many parts of the world. Russia too? (sigh)

It makes me wonder about the composer’s reading of Pushkin’s poem that inspired the opera. There are critics who say he didn’t get Pushkin’s poem, whereas I think he simply put a different spin on the characters, because of his sexuality.

The difference in the opera is how much more sympathetic we find Tatyana & Lensky: not so different from the way Sabina & Antinous are more likeable and more musical to sing than the music for Onegin or Hadrian. Is it a mere coincidence?

Part of it is simply the fact that baritones fight the orchestra (thinking of where their notes sit on the musical staff, sometimes competing with heavier orchestration and less prominent) more than tenors and sopranos. So they often end up in roles with villainous undertones –Alberich, Amonasro, Macbeth, Iago—or at the very least, complexity for the audience—thinking of Germont pere, Rigoletto, Falstaff, Wotan and Amfortas for example. When a baritone gets to be a hero it’s uncommon. For example we do have Rossini’s Figaro, who must be differentiated from the romantic hero, Almaviva. So in other words, whatever Tchaikovsky or Wainwright chose to do, by letting their main hero be a baritone, they signaled to the audience that at the very least they were conflicted about Hadrian and Onegin.

In a recent conversation with my friend Celine Papazewska, we picked up on a theme begun in social media, perhaps by Christine Goerke. They spoke of cross-gender casting in Wagner. I may have sounded like a party pooper when I asked her “what would it sound like” and she replied “fantastic!” But while I love her enthusiasm, the fact is, it takes someone years if not decades to figure out how to sing a role like Isolde or Tristan or Tannhaüser or Turandot. Flipping the gender might make it easier, if you approach it the way Aretha Franklin approached “nessun dorma”: as an occasion for a jazzy improvisation. But if sung with attention to the notes as written, it’s no simple matter. Some rep is easier than others.

I say this having played around this week with Onegin, an opera that makes fewer challenges on its singers than a lot I could name. I sang all the big solos (“kuda kuda” is one of the easiest tenor arias, not going as high as many of the others), only stumbling over the low note that conclude Gremin’s aria. And it’s not interpolated, the composer actually wrote that low G-flat. If one wanted to give Tatyana’s music to a guy or to flip Lensky over to a soprano, it could work just fine. Celine thought Gremin could be a contralto for example.  But really, there are so many possibilities, especially when many operas are very fluid in the way they approach gender signification.

Mozart screams out for this kind of treatment. The best example I can think of is the one we saw here in Toronto, when Teiya Kasahara gave us a gay woman as Cherubino instead of the usual ambiguous male of indeterminate age. And ever notice that Mozart’s women’s parts are more macho than what the men sing? Listen to Donna Anna’s “orsai chi l’onore”, the most stirring aria I can name, and imagine a guy singing it. No Mozart wasn’t signalling that Donna Anna should be a man.  He gave this music to this brave woman who has been sexually assaulted, and wants to make us admire her rather than see her as a victim. And I think he succceeds. Or listen to the first arrival by Donna Elvira when she sings “ah chi mi dice mai”, and in the heroic key of E-flat no less.

Don Ottavio’s “Dalla sua pace” in contrast is soft & sweet. How would it read, I wonder if a man said “beat me beat me” to his lover (whether male or female), the way Zerlina says to Masetto? Imagine this sung by a guy.  I think it’s an intriguing idea, whose time has come.

I’m going to keep playing around with the scores. I’m hoping someone will try this for real –meaning the experiments with gender switching –in a theatre.

This entry was posted in Essays, Personal ruminations, Politics and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Closing matinée for Onegin

  1. An interesting post, I listened to both of the video’s provided and the interpretation of words on one. And its an interesting idea.. 🙂

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