The Antipodean opera world is a small one, apparently. I'm just back from NZ Opera's Eugene Onegin, which featured the conductor of OA's Manon Lescaut, the director of their Baroque Masterpieces, a Tatyana whom I heard for the first time singing with a youth choir in Dunedin and a Madame Larina whom I first encountered when she judged the local vocal competitions. And I bet I have mutual Facebook friends with almost the entire cast. [I just spot-checked one of them. Six mutual friends. Kevin Bacon, eat your heart out.]
Tchaikovsky is one of those composers whose operas have been slowly but surely creeping up on me. I had eyed up NZ Opera's Onegin season from afar and thought it might just be worth finally making the trip — then I saw Renée and Dmitri in the Met production and knew I had to experience this opera in person as soon as possible. So while I continue to wait for Opera Australia to stage it (or any other Tchaikovsky) I have for the moment been sated by this beautiful production.
The beauty begins with the sets. Genevieve Blanchett's design exploits the height of the Aotea Centre stage to astonishing effect, populating it first with trees (leafless, of course) and then with pillars which seem to extend into the sky like Jack's beanstalk. Blanchett does a marvellous job of capturing in visual terms that uneasy wavering between wintry austerity and impassioned opulence which permeates both score and story. Patrick Nolan's direction walks hand-in-hand with the show's aesthetic values. He puts the opera's tale of woe across in simple, elegant and psychologically focused lines, keeping everything basically in period without making a stodgy period piece of it. A few of the reviews I've read have questioned his constraining characters to chairs at key moments — Tatyana, for instance, remains seated at her writing desk throughout her Letter Scene — but to me it seemed a rather nice visual metaphor for the social constraints which everyone in this opera faces at one point or another, and, at least in Tatyana's case, made her musical outpourings all the more dramatic.
Beauty at its purest and most powerful came, of course, from the singing, and in particular from Anna Leese. It's been a joy to watch Anna's rapid rise from local to global sensation, and her NZ Opera début, is a triumph. Her singing mingles radiant sweetness with a steely core, it's flexible and extraordinarily expressive, and she had no problem filling the theatre's difficult acoustic. The youthful freshness of her voice was just right for Tatyana, and it was coupled with a convincingly young — and occasionally gauche — stage presence: she's adorable, and yet you can see why Onegin would overlook her. Even when she had become the Princess Gremina, she retained that slightly shy, unassuming quality, and it made her all the more likeable. True, she didn't come across as hugely tormented and Russian, but there was a soft fragility to her which was just as touching.
William Dazeley in the title role is more difficult to write about — and that's not his fault, it's the fault of the dreaded lurgy. It was announced before the curtain went up that Dazeley had been suffering from the flu for several days (I knew this already) and that he would "very gallantly" sing, but might not be at his best. And it's fair to say he definitely wasn't at his best. All things considered, he coped admirably, but his struggles became ever more audible. Matters came to a head in the penultimate scene, as he seemed to muster every last scrap of voice left just to make it through. It sounded like he'd gone as far as he could go — and sure enough, as he re-entered for his last confrontation with Tatyana, so too did a music stand and his cover, Daniel O'Connor, who had earlier made a brief appearance as the Captain and now supplied a much healthier voice for Onegin's final exertions. All of which makes it hard to comment meaningfully on Dazeley's singing, but at its best it was smooth and strong, if perhaps a bit lighter than I might expect an Onegin to be — although again, that might just have been the illness. He was a mostly convincing partner to Anna's Tatyana, though slightly prone to overreaction; he's a bit more Bingley than Darcy, perhaps, but still nice and haughty.
Happily the rest of the cast seemed to have escaped Dazeley's flu. Kristen Darragh was a bubbly and appealing Olga. It's the kind of flighty role in which you'd expect to hear a soubrette, so Tchaikovsky's choice of a mezzo takes a little getting used to — but Darragh brought a lightness of touch to her earthy tone, and she was ultimately quite persuasive. And in fact, when the going gets tough, it's good to have a voice which suggests a slightly darker undercurrent to Olga's lightheartedness — a frilly coloratura would be quite out of place. Roman Schulackoff was clearly at ease in his own language and he was a lyrical and focused Lensky, predictably — but justifiably — earning enthusiastic applause for his "Kuda, kuda". At times his voice sounded a little thinner than I'd have liked, but he was nevertheless a stylish vocal presence.
Two other members of the supporting cast had special significance for me. Martin Snell is a name I've always known — not just because he's an opera singer, but because he's an opera singer from Dunedin. A hometown boy who made good. Which means he's probably one of the first opera singers I ever heard of, and yet this, to my knowledge, was the first time I'd ever heard him. What a start to make: he was a fantastic Gremin. Helped, admittedly, by having some of the best music in the opera to sing — but it's all in how you sing it, and he sang it beautifully, with exquisite control and low notes for days. And Patricia Wright, our Madame Larina, is of course the very first soprano for whom I travelled. More than once. The last time I attended an NZ Opera production, it was for her Donna Anna; this time she had a smaller and more, well, matronly role but it was still a thrill to see and hear her. The costume might not have been glamorous, but her voice was: suitably warm and motherly, but with a sparkle, too, which lent credence to the character's romantic recollections of her youth. I wished the role were larger, but any Patricia is a delight.
It was also nice to see our Rosemary Gunn representing Australia as Tatyana's slightly hopeless but well-meaning nurse, and Andrew Glover put in a rather striking appearance as the foppish Monsier Triquet — he sang very well indeed, although I wasn't too keen on the character's jokey interaction with the conductor, which seemed out of keeping with the rest of the show. That conductor, incidentally, was none other than Alexander Polianichko, who worked wonders with Manon Lescaut here a couple of months ago and brought a similar brand of magic to Onegin. It seemed at times a fast-moving account, but not rushed, and he brought out all kinds of lush texture in the orchestra. Perhaps he could have supported his singers a little more at times, but then again, perhaps not — they all looked after themselves very nicely, and really, that acoustic is a problem no matter what you do. The chorus was excellent — hardly surprising when you start perusing the list of choristers, it's full of up-and-comers. The choreography was all a bit awkward, though; particularly the very odd chair dance in the third act.
I often wonder how the opera fanatics of Auckland and Wellington manage to survive when the national company only offers two mainstage productions a year. It can't be easy. But if all of those shows are as musically and theatrically polished as this one, then maybe it's not as hard as I imagine. While not exactly devastating, the beauty of this Onegin runs deeper than the pretty frocks and elegant sets, and it's substantial sustenance for any addict. The Auckland season has already finished, but the Wellington season runs from the 10th to the 17th of October — so if you happen to be in the vicinity, I'd strongly suggest obtaining a ticket. This is a dark beauty well worth seeking out.