Tardy thoughts: Parsifal and Eugene Onegin

With relative brevity, given the lack of currency, my thoughts on my last two musical outings: to the Met Parsifal, relayed (with some disappointment) to the Phoenix Cinema, East Finchley; and before that to the last performance of the run of Eugene Onegin at the Royal Opera House, which was also not without its frustrations. 

The Met’s production seemed measured, expansive and non-intrusive.  The barren expanses of the outer acts were accompanied by massive projections of swirling, angry skies and mystical planets rising up from the horizon in the manner of Melancholia.  For the second act, Klingsor’s enchanted garden was a little less than enchanting, but taken on its own terms it was a relatively well executed confrontation, and the lake of blood soaking up the white shift-dresses of the Flowermaidens was a striking image.

The problems were largely in the reproduction of the work in the cinema, where the Phoenix Cinema seemed unable to reproduce the aural dynamics, being maddenly inconsistent throughout, starting out broadly too quiet, then being so loud that it distorted, and finding an unsatisfactory middle-ground in the last act.  It was unsatisfactory largely because the sound was too ‘boxy’, sounding almost like a 1950s mono recording, which failed to do justice either to the Met orchestra or the soloists’ voices.  Kaufmann, in particular, suffered painful distortion at forte.  I’m not going to comment on vocal performances, therefore, but it appeared a performance of rare commitment on the part of all soloists: Peter Mattei was astonishingly vivid in conveying Amfortas’s torment; the role of Gurnemanz suited Rene Pape’s ‘solid’ sort of acting style; the connection between Kaufmann and Katerina Dalayman’s  Kundry seemed to be interrupted by slightly restless camera work during their long act 2 interchange.  Difficult though it was to assess, I couldn’t get swept up in Gatti’s rather measured approach to the score – but as I say, it wasn’t helped by the sound reproduction so I’ll await the DVD to properly assess.  If you’re in that part of the world, then I’m afraid I cannot recommend the Phoenix for these relays at all: head down the hill to Belsize Park.

Meanwhile, back at Covent Garden, I’d really looked forward to Kasper Holten’s directorial debut with Eugene Onegin, but unfortunately the production seemed to take this delicate work of honest and direct emotions, and batter it to death with symbolism, bad lighting and a tiresome single set.  The idea of having a ‘young Tatyana and Onegin’, in the form of dancers, was (for me and those in our little group who saw it with me) a dismal failure: an alienating, confusing, badly-executed idea that simply got in the way of any potential for the principal characters to connect.  When they got out of the way, a little flame would be kindled, only to be doused again when they reappeared.  For most of the second act, the ‘young Tatyana’ clambered up a bookcase and sat in an open cupboard.

Simon Keenlyside’s Onegin was already a character very unlike the ‘established’ conception of Onegin – as is to be expected of anything this thoughtful and individual artist turns his hand to.  His Onegin was more impetuous, less imperious, than the typical Mr Darcy-style characterisations, but it was impossible to adapt to this and to reflect on it, since it was confused by the intercession of the dancers.  Similarly, Krassimira Stoyanova sang an assured Tatyana, particularly as the older character.  The end of the opera was disastrously handled: bringing Prince Gremin on to watch the would-be lovers’ final confrontation bizarrely robs Tatyana of her moral strength.  It is a glory of the piece that it so well captures Tatyana’s own tension at that moment, resolved in favour of what is ‘proper’, perhaps, rather than what her heart is telling her.  What seems clear to me is that she isn’t making that choice simply because her husband happens to be watching; and in an story where one person has just been killed in a duel over a more minor slight, it is preposterous that Prince Gremin stands by silently.

The one real high-point was Pavol Breslik’s sensitively sung Lensky, a real sense of stillness and pathos inflecting his act 2 ‘Kuda, kuda‘.  The musical pacing was a little lacklustre as well, and the swells of emotion seemed to be layered on, not integrated into, Robin Ticciati’s reading of the opera.  I’d raved about the opera to a friend whose first experience this was, and who was ultimately equally irritated: just another aspect of a rather frustrating evening.

2 comments

  1. Love the Phoenix but never been to a live broadcast there so interesting to hear your assessment. We chose the IMAX at Waterloo this time and it was magnificent. We were in the second row so there was the danger of the stiff neck, but so huge was the screen that I could easily take my glasses off, read the surtitles and not have the top bar of my specs cutting the screen in half. My partner thought it was the best thing we had seen from the Met so far and Kaufman is so at the top of his game at the moment. Impressed with all the leads and Mattei was astounding. John F

    1. Sounds like it was great at the Imax; I’ve never seen the Met relays there. In fact, I think the last thing I saw there was Disney’s remastered Fantasia: am still haunted by the shock of a sudden unannounced appearance of a 60ft Angela Lansbury in close-up… I look forward to the DVD to get a better assessment of the performance. Whether the Phoenix were having ‘issues’ I don’t know, but it sounded more likely to be their equipment. A friend has tickets arranged for Giulio Cesare, so will be instructive to compare. Thanks for taking time to comment.

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