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The empty space
Laurent Pelly directs Eugene Onegin in Brussels (****) [stream]
Author : Jos Hermans
After the grandiose failure with Pikovaya Dama directed by David Marton, La Monnaie had to do something to put the second part of its Russian trilogy, delayed by covid troubles, back on track. It did so indeed as Laurent Pelly's staging of Yevgeny Onegin could not have been more different. Pelly does not interpret, offers the spectator a textually faithful reading, banishes all ugliness from the stage and in so doing delivers the perfect antithesis of what Marton was trying to achieve. In doing so, he comes very close to the theatrical language of Peter Brook. Here, too, we find an empty space and an almost old-fashioned wooden plank floor that will serve as a primal stage. The stage is square, can rotate about its axis to the rhythm of the emotional waves of the opera and, during the letter scene, truly unfolds into a box to materialize the intimate space of Tatyana's bedroom. A black-painted wooden staircase, shimmering in the moonlight as if it were the second act of Lohengrin, is in turn the equally bare setting for the third act at the St. Petersburg court. That Pelly himself situates the performance in pre-revolutionary Russia is apparent only from the costumes, for, as noted, Pelly does not interpret.
Decors and props are limited to the absolute minimum, which means that only chairs are on display (scenography: Massimo Troncanetti); mood creation is done with light. Non-interpretive theater is not a dogma but a possibility. When it works, it is magnificent. The absence of scenographic ballast draws the spectator's attention towards the characters; the lighting direction does the same thing again in a different way. More than usual, the success of the performance thus lies in the hands of the actors. Brook put it this way: “I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space, whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.” In Brussels, too, it produces many fine images, even to the eye of the camera, or should I say, mostly to the eye of the camera. Milky clouds color the backdrop.
So no jam jars at Ms. Larina's house, but a book in Tatjana's reading-prone hands. The two girls have cute ponytails. That the poet falls for the engaging charm of his Olga (Lilly Jørstad) is quite plausible. That he, in all his exaggerated seriousness, cannot handle her teasing at Tatjana's birthday party is plausible as well. The lighting direction (Marco Giusti) is adequate in creating the mood after the letter scene and during Lenski's tragic monologue. Lionel Hoche's choreography sometimes feels a bit awkward, as in the first act's peasant dance.
The casting was disappointing to me. Stéphane Degout possesses a very low baritone. I can see him evolving to a bass baritone in 10 years. Throughout the whole performance I could not get used to that low timbre, accustomed as I am to Peter Mattei's ideal timbre for me in the role of Onegin. It makes him even more pedantic than he already is. Rarely has an Onegin been as cold and heartless as this dandy who doesn't even bother to step onto the platform during his sermon. Is it Tatyana who wins our sympathy in the first act, in the third act he fails to tip things in his favor.
What La Monnaie continues to see in Sally Matthews is beyond me. The voice is never bright and clear, the delivery never sensuous, the timbre never seductive, sensual, feminine. That was already the case in 2014 with Jenufa. Yet La Monnaie has never stopped engaging her. And now she is being groomed for Sieglinde? Despite her fervor, the letter scene, which she ends in a slightly hysterical, almost sickly trance, is rather mediocre. Here is a voice that does not fit the character of a young country girl. There are so many Russian sopranos who could have done better.
Bogdan Volkov as Lenski demonstrates his familiarity with the role. He builds the second verse of his great aria from a delicate, fragile piano. Dynamically and interpretatively, it is all very nuanced. "Kuda, kuda" is therefore the vocal highlight of the evening when it should really be the final duet.
Nicolas Courjal sings the aria of Prince Gremin with a rather unpleasant mole timbre. Cristina Melis goes out of her way to play an elderly Filippievna but never succeeds. Good in the minor roles are Bernadetta Grabas as Madame Larin and Christophe Mortagne as Monsieur Triquet.
One who does not disappoint is Alain Altinoglu. His committed body language betrays a great affinity for this repertoire which translates especially into a great agogic mastery of the orchestra which he makes sound like the beating heart of a girl in love. The strings respond smoothly and warmly with beautifully resonant double basses as a result. The crescendi of Tatyana's fever dream are compelling, the oboe haunts the orchestra pit full of melancholy, the polonaise has punch and the orchestral fortes of the third act strike at the heart of the final confrontation.
I would be curious to know how the second cast fared.
To be viewed on Mezzo and Medici TV.