|Vira Slywotzky, Eric Sedgwick, Xiaoming Tian, Bray Wilkins, and Jane Marsh
There were many things that made it special. It was the first time we attended a class given by Jane Marsh, who has had an illustrious career and had so much to share with the three students, most of it gleaned from her vast experience with the Russian language and with Eugene Onegin in particular.
It was the first time we've witnessed a master class devoted to one opera and Tchaikovsky's masterpiece was the perfect choice. Obviously, the three participants all knew their arias well and most likely had sung the roles to great acclaim. So the class felt like witnessing the polishing of gems that had already been expertly cut. Polishing just brings out the luster--subtleties that we will know to look for the next time we attend this operatic treasure.
Ms. Marsh pointed out that the libretto is not truly a libretto, but rather a lengthy poem written by Pushkin in 1833 and set by Tchaikovsky in 1879; every Russian person can recite this poem since it is taught in their excellent educational system. It is such fine poetry and such fine composing that the musical stresses and the textual ones match up perfectly.
In general, a good strong middle voice is necessary because of the dark sound of the Russian language. This is not Italian and sentimentality is to be avoided.
Soprano Vira Slywotzky is most known to us from the world of art song (Mirror Visions Ensemble) and operetta (Victor Herbert Renaissance Project Live!). Numerous reviews of her delightful singing are archived right here. Although we suspected there was a lot more to her talent, we had not had the opportunity to hear it until yesterday. Her Tatyana was a revelation!
Ms. Slywotzky's native tongue is Ukrainian and her ease with Russian allowed her to focus on the creation of a character; she totally convinced us in the "letter scene" that she was a love-sick seventeen-year-old experiencing infatuation and romantic longing for the first time in her life. Ms. Marsh's coaching concentrated on dynamics and pacing and body language.
She asked for some urgency in the first few couplets as this involuntary passion has produced a sense of resolve which grows. Ms. Marsh had abridged this lengthy scene without negative effect, the better to have time to work on key phrases. She pointed out that Tatyana's upbringing was conservative and her body language must be restrained. No grandstanding on the high note! No arm waving!
After she writes some of the letter, the next part should be slow and piano as she reflects on her doubts and her feelings of being misunderstood. The suggestions took Ms. S. to a new level. We were glad that she remained onstage to be coached in the confrontation scene with Onegin.
We loved Xiaoming Tian's interpretation of Onegin. We have often said that the guy is not a heel; he is an elegant somewhat reserved aristocrat from the big city and he is letting Tatyana down easily with some good advice. It's a wonderful scene and much of the coaching was devoted to positioning Tatyana's body and how she jumps up when Onegin arrives.
Onegin is meant to be reticent and not demonstrative. Mr. Tian (whose work we know well from his advanced studies and performances at Manhattan School of Music) outdid himself with his gorgeous baritonal sound and it is upon this that the singer of Russian must rely, not upon cheap theatrics. The character he created was a sympathetic one, which is necessary if we are to feel the tragedy at the end. Mr. Tian's word coloration, phrasing, and gestures were impeccable. The two singers worked well together and we'd love to see them in an entire performance.
In the role of Lensky, we heard tenor Bray Wilkins whom we have heard a few times over the past few years. From Ms. Marsh we learned that the character of Lensky was probably rather autobiographical on Pushkin's part; indeed the poet died in a duel after surviving 29 (!) duels based on his romantic jealousy. Now there's a good topic for a new opera!
"Kuda, kuda" is frequently heard in competitions and is a terrific tenor showpiece. Mr. Wilkins was coached to begin singing facing upstage and to gradually turn to face the audience. Lensky is a poet and he is ruminating about the meaning of life, knowing that he is facing death.
When he thinks about the world forgetting him, he should allow a decrescendo to happen without making it happen. When he cries out to Olga, he must open it up and lean on the phrase with passion. We have heard this before but it is worth repeating Ms. Marsh's instructions to "think up on the low notes and think down on the high notes". We understood exactly what she meant and it did make quite a difference in Mr. Wilkins' performance.
The challenging piano reduction was well-negotiated by Eric Sedgwick who is always an asset.
The afternoon did not end until Ms. Marsh gave each singer an opportunity to express how they felt about singing in Russian and specifically in these roles. We expect to approach this opera, specifically the characters of this opera, with renewed appreciation.
(c) meche kroop