|Maestro Aza Sydykov, Anastasia Sidorova, Antonina Chehovska, Gustavo Feulien, and Marc Verzatt
After three satisfying evenings at the Eurasia Festival, we are feeling very involved and reluctant to see the festival end. Last night's Eugene (Evgeny) Onegin was the capstone of the festival and left us in a state of bliss. Most operas are entertaining; occasionally one captures our intellectual curiosity.
As soon as the artists were greeted and congratulated on their superlative performances, we rushed home to read more about Pushkin's 1833 verse novel, originally published in serial form; we read about Tchaikovky's 1879 adaptation for the opera stage; we read about Vladimir Nabokov's 1964 translation (used last night for the narration) which placed preservation of meaning over preservation of Pushkin's very specific rhyming and scanning scheme; we read about John Cranko's adaptation of the story for The Stuttgart Ballet in 1965.
We also learned some interesting points about dueling in 19th c. Russia and the fact that Lensky's "second" failed in his role by never offering Onegin the opportunity to apologize and thereby avoid the duel. We also learned that Lensky was only 18 years old which explains his impulsivity in challenging Onegin and also the immaturity of Olga in flirting with Onegin--a circumstance which provoked Lensky's jealousy and the challenge.
It was Cranko's ballet that first introduced us to the tragic story of a spoiled dandy, world-weary at age 25, who dismisses a provincial lass; later he realizes his loss when he meets her as the worldly center of Moscow society, and (alas!) married to the elderly Prince Gremin.
When we grew up we found opera more compelling than ballet and readily fell for the opera in its several iterations at The Metropolitan Opera. Last night we gained a new appreciation of the work due to a number of factors. The brilliance of the singing we will get to in a bit, but first we want to tell you about the success of this abridged semi-staged concert version. Pianist and Diction Coach Vera Danchenko-Stern adapted the script directly from Nabokov's translation; the script was read by Stage Director Marc Verzatt, who gave voice to each character and also read Nabokov's description of the action.
The interaction focused on the four main characters with all others eliminated. We confess that we missed the charming opening scene with Madame Larina reminiscing with Filippyevna about their youth and the singing of the serfs--but not for long because we were plunged into the relationship between Tatiana (the luminous soprano Antonina Chehovska) and her younger sister Olga (the arresting mezzo Anastasia Sidorova).
The two women, without benefit of costumes and scenery, conveyed the warmth between the two sisters by means of their tender harmonies. The acting was flawless with Olga's playful nature and Tatiana's reserved aspect accurately limned. The portrayal of their contrasting temperaments is crucial to the story.
When Lensky (terrific tenor Fanyong Du) arrives at the Larin estate he professes his love for Olga, his childhood sweetheart, in an ardent declaration which involved an exquisite messa di voce. Olga joins in and their relationship, as expressed in Tchaikovsky's music, seems solid.
Lensky's "city-mouse" friend Onegin (the compelling baritone Gustavo Feulien) has a profound effect on Tatiana, who falls for him instantly. The lengthy "letter scene" which followed was so magnificently sung and acted by Ms. Chehovska that we realized the universality of youthful impetuosity. Ms. Chehovska went through a panoply of emotions and colored her voice to suit. Mr. Verzatt's direction amplified the emotions.
The pain of Onegin's rejection (which was actually truthful and not unkind) we felt a hundred times over. By focusing on the interaction of the characters, this performance affected us more than ever before.
Lensky's scene and aria "Kuda, kuda" we've heard countless times before; from Mr. Du's performance we grew in appreciation of the youth's range of emotions. Too much has happened too fast and he is in far deeper than he intended. He says he accepts his fate but Mr. Du showed us the underlying pain and panic. He sings of his love for Olga but he is also singing some guilt-inducing words which spring from his anger.
In the duel scene, Tchaikovsky's music has the two men singing different text on different vocal lines up to a point where they come together. The tension in the music is almost unbearable.
Onegin's arioso is powerful and he is an almost irresistible force confronting Tatiana's immovable object. Like most 19th c. women, she puts duty above love. Tchaikovsky's music shows us by the gorgeous harmonies that she still loves Onegin.
One feature that made this adaptation work was the successful arrangement of the score for a chamber orchestra which Maestro Sydykov conducted with precision and a real feel for the romantic line. Perhaps because of the condensation, we came to realize the unity of the score. We asked Maestro Sydykov who performed the reduction of the score and he brushed it off with undue modesty, claiming that Tchaikovsky's music made it easy--only the loudest instruments like the trumpet and trombone were eliminated. Uh, really???
The musicians played as excellently as the singers sang. Much of the melody was carried by pianist Vladimir Rumyantsev, with significant contribution from violinist Vartan Mayliyantz whom we've enjoyed throughout the festival; from the marvelous clarinetist Bakhtiyar Dooranov whom we've also admired; and similarly from flutist Eliza Salibaeva. Raul Rodriguez was new to us but his French Horn provided some interpolated motifs that added hugely to the texture.
As far as the singers go, we are no stranger to Ms. Chehovska's artistry which we have reviewed about seven times. For details, dear reader, enter her name in the search bar and you will learn how impressed we have been with her artistry for the past four years. We have heard her sing in Russian, Ukrainian, Czech, Italian, and French--all with the same attention to depth of interpretation, and vocal artistry. We have been there at most of the competitions that she's won. We have heard the "letter scene" a few times over the past few years and she just keeps getting deeper into the character.
Mr. Du is just "tenorrific" and reviewed as many times as Ms. Chehovska, mostly as he won competitions. It is an interesting coincidence that we wrote about the two of them singing a duet from Puccini's La Bohême. He has such a perfect control of dynamics that it seems that the term "messa di voce" was invented just for him!
The other two singers are new to us but impressed us very favorably. Mezzo-soprano Anastasiia Sidorova has one of those marvelous mezzo instruments that have a distinctively mezzo sound; many singers call themselves mezzos because they can handle the range but they don't have that very special sound. Add to this her fine phrasing and convincing dramatic skills and you will know why we look forward to hearing her again.
Finally, baritone Gustavo Feulien won us over with his rich and powerful sound and acting chops. We are quite sure we will hear him again soon as well. He was so convincing that we actually felt sorry for Onegin at the end.
We would never have predicted that an abridged concert version of an opera could be so affecting. Significantly, all four singers had the role securely under their respective belts, so to speak. The absence of music stands and scores goes a long way toward allowing singers the freedom to act their character.
And so the Eurasia Festival has come to an end with promises to return next year. Maestro Sydykov is not only a conductor but a concert pianist and vocal coach as well as President of the Kyrgyz American Foundation which sponsors the Festival. The mission of this foundation is to promote the multicultural heritage of Eurasia in the USA. The support of The Open Society Foundations (founded in 1993 by George Soros) has been instrumental in fostering democracy, justice, and human rights. We thank them from the bottom of our heart for supporting this festival.
(c) meche kroop