A Surprising Eugene Onegin Lures Me For Carmen In SpadesSunday, November 30, 2008
For some services rendered I had two extremely good tickets to the Vancouver Opera's opening day performance, last Tuesday, of Pyotr Iliych Tchaikovsky's opera Eugene Onegin. But I took a chance and asked the powers that be for lesser (but three) tickets for yesterday Saturday with the idea of also taking Rebecca. I asked Rebecca. She said yes. But later it came down that she had been afraid to say no and that she really did not, nor does she like opera. My only comment on this is that you need yeast back at the bakery to make dough rise and without yeast, bread will always be flat.
The empty seat besides me was like a black hole. I could feel a pull. Rosemary and I from the vantage point of our lesser ticket seats enjoyed an opera that surprised me at many levels. The sets (Neil Patel) were sparse and beautiful especially the one in Act III where a bored Eugene Onegin (baritone Brett Polegato) comes back from a trip around the world where all he has found is more boredom. Servants remove his travel clothing and dress him up for a ball as the scenery around him transforms itself into a neo-Greco-Roman ballroom with huge columns bathed in a metalic blue cast. The dancers appear and then Tatyana (soprano Rhoslyn Jones) makes her triumphant entrance lit by a brilliant warm spotlight and in the arms of the tall soldier husband, Prince Gremin (bass Peter Volpe). I have not been so moved by colour and lighting (Rui Rita) in a very long time and particularly in theatre or opera.
The music was also a surprise, while being romantic, it was somehow also sparse, elegant and less over the top as in some of the Italian operas. The overture was quiet and short. The endings after each act (3) or scenes (7) were probably also quiet and lovely but last night's audience was quick to clap before the music ended so I was left with a frustrating curiosity. The music was a revelation which somehow matched the look of the sets and the crisp sound of chorus director Leslie Dala's chorus. Could it be an accident that if Tchaikovsky has given us so many good ballets that the dancing in this production (Allison Grant, choreographer) was both interesting and fun?
As always Rosemary and I enjoyed the Preacher of the Opera's sermon (even the folks at the unculturally recalcitrant Vancouver Sun know a good thing when they see one as they now sponsor the pre-opera talks) before the night's opera. Doug Tuck (The Preacher) enlightened us on how the composer was inspired by Russian composer Mikhail Glinka's opera Ivan Susanin and Pushkin's own Eugene Onegin . At the end of his talk he informed us of the Vancouver Opera's next production, which is Bizet's Carmen which opens January 24, 2009. I wondered if Tuck was up to something and if he was somehow winking at us. When we arrived home I looked into my The History of Opera by Richard Sommerset-Ward and hit paydirt!
But it was in Paris (1876) en route to Bayreuth that he had what he himself described as his most important experience. He attended a performance of Bizet's Carmen. It had been staged for the first time the previous year and had had a cool reception from the Parisian audience. What fascinated Tchaikovsky was not just the copious melody and the realistic story line: Carmen also had an underlying theme that corresponded to something deeply embedded in his own consciousness and, that was increasingly to dominate the remaining years of his life - the theme of fate.
In the "Card Trio"at the beginning of Act III, Carmen turns over the cards to see how they lie. "Spades - a grave!" she exclaims. "What matters it? If you are to die, try the cards a hundred times, they will fall the same - spades, a grave."
In Onegin's duel scene in Act II Scene 2, Oengin's former friend Vladimir Lensky (tenor Oleg Balashov) sings beautifully of his fate and his possible grave in very much the same words. While one of Tchaikovsky's lesser known operas, The Queen of Spades was based on a Puskin own story by the same name he cannot have written it without thinking back to Carmen's prophecy.