Anne Midgette reviews 'Eugene Onegin'

Flashes of brilliance: Valery Gergiev entering the stage for "Eugene Onegin" at the Kennedy Center Friday night.
Flashes of brilliance: Valery Gergiev entering the stage for "Eugene Onegin" at the Kennedy Center Friday night. (Sarah L. Voisin/the Washington Post)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 1, 2010

Even in a business full of overachievers, the Russian conductor Valery Gergiev stands out. His level of activity doesn't seem physically sustainable. A new documentary, called "You Cannot Start Without Me" (just out on DVD), asserts that Gergiev conducts, on average, a performance every day of the year.

This is demonstrably true over the next couple of weeks, as St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Theater, which Gergiev has run since 1988 (and brought into the international limelight) continues its month-long tour of North America, with a 10-day Kennedy Center residency at its center.

The visit to Washington started on Friday with a concert performance of "Eugene Onegin." Most orchestras on tour play the same one or two programs over and over; not Gergiev. His tour includes everything from Berlioz's massive "Romeo and Juliet" and "Les Troyens" to orchestral works like Mahler's Fifth to, at the Kennedy Center, a cross-section of the Russian opera repertory, culminating this coming weekend with a staging of Prokofiev's "War and Peace," one of the largest and most challenging operas ever written.

Such things are planned out years in advance. But in Gergiev's world, even opera scheduling is subject to change. "Eugene Onegin" was moved at short notice from Saturday to Friday so that the maestro could go to Vancouver and participate in the closing ceremonies of the Winter Olympics. (He was a member of the Russian Olympic Committee that successfully lobbied to bring the 2014 games to Sochi, Russia.)

At the same time, Gergiev is rehearsing for the Metropolitan Opera premiere of Shostakovich's "The Nose," which opens Friday -- in between Kennedy Center opera concerts on Wednesday and Thursday and "War and Peace" on Saturday and Sunday. I've been told I was crazy for merely attending all these performances. Gergiev is actually conducting them.

Inevitably, there are quality control issues for anyone sustaining this level of hyperactivity: Gergiev's performances are notoriously uneven (as is well known in Washington, where the Mariinsky has made near-annual appearances for years). But he is also notoriously brilliant. On Friday, "Eugene Onegin," if it went in and out of focus, was sustained by the vivid, almost crazy energy emanating from Gergiev and the orchestra. "Onegin" is an easy opera to make pretty; here, it came across as visceral as heart's blood.

"Onegin" is the Russian opera most familiar outside Russia. It's hard to beat music by Tchaikovsky, words by Pushkin (heavily adapted from his seminal verse-form novella), and a score kitted out with dances, several reliably show-stopping arias, and a properly bitter ending in which ethics trump operatic passion (translation: "No, Eugene, I will not leave my husband for you just because you've changed your mind").

It's even harder to beat it when it's sung by a cast of singers who have grown up with it, singing in their own language. On Friday, the singers' imperfections were outweighed by their conviction and diction that, to this non-Russian speaker, sounded as if it were conveying actual words and meanings, rather than the mere sung syllables into which opera can all too frequently degenerate.

The idea that Russian singers are uniquely able to bring across Russian opera has become a truism, and yet it remains true. The last concert performance of "Onegin" I heard was the one Leonard Slatkin and the National Symphony Orchestra did in 2008; they, too, offered a mainly Russian cast, including the same Tatiana and Olga -- Irina Mataeva and Ekaterina Semenchuk -- who performed on Friday night.

There were flaws, nonetheless. Mataeva has strongly impressed me in past outings, including Natasha in "War and Peace" at the Met, a role she'll reprise at the Kennedy Center (it's the same production). In this "Onegin," though, her shining lyric soprano, which sometimes soars like a silver flame, began to gutter at the end of the love letter scene, the centerpiece of the opera, which calls for a long period of sustained singing capped by emphatic climaxes that caused some audible wear on her sound.

Alexey Markov, the Onegin, will also reprise his Met "War and Peace" role, Prince Andrei, this weekend. He has a startlingly dark baritone, with the same nap as the black velvet jacket he sported on Friday night; indeed, it sounds as if his voice is ultimately headed for bass-baritone territory. But his upper register had a brassiness and sense of constraint, as if its job were to hold back the powerful lower notes that kept trying to break out of line and grab all the attention.

As Lensky, Sergey Semishkur offered plenty of young ardor and a competent voice that was at once light and strong, like aluminum, but not distinctive. Semenchuk remains solid, in the double sense of being dependable and of having a firm, low, Mother Russia kind of sound. Mikhail Petrenko, who sang the aria of Prince Gremin, the older man Tatiana eventually marries, at Gergiev's unusually dirgelike tempo, was a little stiff, with an admirable lower register but without the weight and warmth in the middle of the voice to bring the aria fully to life.

One notably weak link was the dancing-master Triquet, whose one aria can be a fun showpiece for a character tenor, but which sounded on Friday as if Andrey Popov were simply going through the motions (again not helped by Gergiev's notably slow tempo). Popov may just have been tired; he's also in rehearsals for "The Nose" at the Met.

As for Gergiev: His conducting was the equivalent of a camera lens panning across a landscape and then zooming in unexpectedly to give you a sharply focused detail that changes the whole picture. Part of the fun was that you never knew what detail would capture his interest: the Letter Scene went on autopilot, but Lensky's death scene was thrown into a frenzy by the passion of the strings, and the following intermezzo leading into Act 3, which can be just scene-setting dance music, made everything dance along.

His performances are a balancing act: grueling routine on the one hand, searing and vital musicmaking on the other. Not knowing which side will win out on a given evening is one reason people keep coming back for more.

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