Opera Review: Eugene Onegin

This is only my third opera, but after my incredibly awesome experience with Fidelio back in the summer, I was eager to revisit the National Theatre. This time, we enjoyed Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, the Taiwanese premiere, with the never-ceasing-to-impress Taipei Symphony Orchestra and lots of other people:

Domonkos Héja, Conductor
Marc Adam, Stage Director
Hsiu-Chin Tsai, Stage Designer
Svetlana Aksenova, Tatjana
Levente Molnár, Eugene Onegin
Zurab Zurabishvili, Lenskij
Adriana Bastidas-Gamboa, Olga
Jacques-Greg Belobo, Prince Gremin
Yu-Hsin Wang, Madame Larina
Bello Chang, Monsieur Triquet
Chan-Yu Yeh, Zaretsky
Hai-Yun Cheng, Filippyevna
Chi-An Chen, Captain
Taipei Symphony Orchestra
Taipei Symphony Orchestra Chorus
(details in English and Chinese available here)

This, again, is another event I bought my tickets to ages ago, and it’s finally come around. On the tail end of the past two nights of Concertgebouw performances and another concert tomorrow, it’s a busy week.

Amazing seats in a beautiful hall before we got started.

Frankly, the superb experience of Fidelio with the NSO back in the summer and the Opernhaus Zurich, Andreas Homoki, all of that… it made me worry a bit that this performance of Tchaikovsky’s work would pale in comparison. I also worried about getting an English marquis because I don’t read Chinese nearly as fast and my Russian has become so rusty as to be nonexistent. I asked the folks at the TSO’s Facebook Page if there would be English on the marquee. No. Oh well. I read the Chinese well enough.

I got an incredible deal on these tickets (my 10% off for membership plus an additional 30% for a promotion they had, as I recall), so I bought two tickets, really great seats, and thought I’d bring a friend. I was so elated after Fidelio last time that I was also rather disappointed I had no one to share the experience with. This, shockingly, was not the case this time. Aside from the friend I brought with me, in mentioning it to a few others, I was able to recruit six other people to go! Six! To an opera! In Russian! I was thrilled. Because sure; how many times have I heard Prokofiev’s Classical or Beethoven’s third or fifth or Tchaikovsky’s late symphonies live? But this? This is special, and everyone in the end was very glad they went. Ticket sales for the evening seemed to be quite good, too. It felt (and looked) like a packed house, with a noticeably large number of Russian guests in attendance.

The National Theatre is really a beautiful place, and it’s only my second time attending an event there, but I was excited to return. Killer seats. Fourteenth row and absolute center. Really spectacular.

I haven’t attended operas enough to really get the clapping and stop/start rhythm of when it’s okay to do what, but clapping does happen much more freely in the theatre. That’s what went through my mind as the overture started (is it an overture?) and the credits rolled on the marquee as people still kind of talked and shuffled and got sorted. I am not used to this. But the curtain went up after the downbeat came and things got started.

The stage design was quite nice, not the stark, minimalist thing that Fidelio was, but tasteful, gorgeous, and understated, not at all cheesy or frumpy. There were some really nice touches to the staging and props, and the first person in the performance who captured my heart was sweet old Filippyevna, who was not old at all but really had me worried she’d go tumbling into the pit or down the stairs. Good way to start the piece. The clothes for the women and the dancers and chorus in the first scene seemed… traditionally conservative, like something you’d see people wear if The Sound of Music had been filmed in rural Russia, conservative, attractive, but not really dated or specific to any period. Thus, when Lensky came out looking like he’d finished the front nine at the local golf course, it seemed like he’d forgotten his costume change, but no. It was just… standardly, attractively neutral, almost rural, non-American J-Crew like, at least for the first act, which seemed to be like the first section of many other Tchaikovsky works, hefty and much longer than the ones that come after it. The orchestra was on point, the performers outstanding not only to listen to but to watch, their interactions engaging, their personalities clearly unique. We were most definitely in for a treat.

The second act is where things really got interesting and the drama continued. No spoilers here, but there were some fantastically dramatic high points in the first act, really goosebump-worthy stuff. It snowed, and the snow and the trees were gorgeous and eerily serene. Things are livelier and more engaging in the later two acts. Once all the setup and backstory is prepared, things move much faster. This seems to be a Tchaikovsky thing. The intermission came after the first two (much longer) acts, leaving only the significantly shorter third after the intermission. This might be standard, but I suppose it was to facilitate the changes of scenery for that act, a much more involved, intricate, and very beautiful setting. Jacques-Greg Belobo as Prince Gremin was stunning, and I wished he’d had a greater part in the performance. The role of Prince Gremin was listed (as I am writing this it still is in the English version) on the website as ‘to be determined,’ but they found an incredible Prince.

I won’t reveal anything for those of you who haven’t seen it, but the ending I think literally made me gasp aloud, and assuredly gave me chills. The last scene is a tender, stressful, emotional one between our two main characters, and while you’re wondering if the plot could take a turn and lead us into an entirely new section of the story, these two leads battle it out. They’ve left the public places of earlier in the evening, and when Tatyana took her leave for the evening she drew a sheer black curtain across the stage, leaving only a divan in sight. During the final scene here, we do hear the rolling and mild rumble of things being rolled off stage.

Upon finishing the rest of what needed to be finished in the scene, Tatyana storms off behind the curtain, which had a seam in it after all. Frustrated, dejected, and seemingly determined, Onegin stomps after her. Upon reaching the curtain however, in perfect sync with the big, final crash of the orchestra, in a gesture of supreme anger and frustration, he pulls down the curtain and it flitters down, swallowing him into the stage (he almost literally disappeared), revealing a black nothingness with Tatyana standing at its center in a white dress, a phenomenal, dramatic decisive, nearly magical end that sent a chill down my spine and through my person, a supremely wonderful ending to a spectacular performance by all. The stage design, performers, choruses (although they got a bit off the beat once or twice), the orchestra, everything was absolutely pristine.

While I didn’t get to see Maestro Varga this evening, I was extremely proud of the Taipei Symphony, and he is kind of their leader. While it can’t be said that he is the reason for their recent excellence, he is certainly to be commended for an ensemble of which he is extremely proud, and they should rightly be proud for the outstanding job they did, not just the orchestra, but everyone involved in the production of this work that took many months, perhaps even a year or more of planning. It was a true joy and an honor to attend, and from the looks on the faces of the performers during the roars of applause, they seemed just as proud of what they presented, and seemed to enjoy themselves as much as we did watching them.

Bravo, Taipei Symphony. Let’s do this more often!

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