Sunday, 25 January 2015

A Definitive 'Onegin' with Marianela Nunez and Thiago Soares

Before the opening night of the Royal Ballet's 'Onegin', the assembled audience - largely comprised of Covent Garden regulars - were abuzz for two main reasons; the reunification of husband-wife couple Thiago Soares and Marianela Nunez on stage for the first time this season and for the imperious young talent Vadim Muntagirov's debut as Lensky. Both would go on to reward the crowd handsomely for their interest.

On the face of it, Cranko's adaption of the Russian epic is not immediately gripping. Despite several beautifully flowing pas des deux and a remarkable production replete with whimsical sets and a Slavic grandeur, the lack of choreographed vulnerability to any character but Tatyana has the potential to leave the audience a little cold. Moreover, despite a well-chosen Tchaikovsky score, only the music for the mirror and final pas de deux are truly arresting, with several climatic passages failing to rouse - the unfortunate arrangement of the Lensky's Act 2 solo orchestration remains a point of personal displeasure for me. Thus, much depends on the cast's interpretation of their bare tools, more so than many other ballets. 

What then of our eponymous anti-hero? Thiago Soares has played the mercurial noble many times to much acclaim - it is a role he portrays perhaps better than most, if not all, in the world. His very appearance is striking as that of the brooding figure who captures the young Tatyana's fancy as if straight from the realms of folklore. His look is strong and greatly mysterious and his manner imperious and rather abrupt. Such is his comfort that both of his solos were executed with breathtaking - almost flippant - ease. There is a self-contained poise about his Onegin that truly befits this shadowy character; the original poem contains scarce insight into his character other than what the wide-eyed, breathless Tatyana bequeaths of him. In his Act 1 solo, the exacting and domineering presence he exudes and he spins again and again exactly matches the nervous flutter of Tatyana in the wings, scared to meet his gaze. Indeed, it is not until Act 3, where she has become an elegant and less fanciful young woman that we truly get a glimpse of insight into his character; his utter surprise and pain at her transformation was very real.

Nunez is, in every role, a generously supple and achingly tender dancer - her technique is so secure that it is now very much taken for granted and rarely commented upon. Her Tatyana was crafted from the softest, most silken cloth. With an honest, open face and naturally sunny disposition, it is this kind of role in which she truly soars; as a Manon, she is too kind, as a Kitri, she is too structured. Tatyana, however, fits her like a dream. In Act 1, she shone and quivered as a pale slip of a young girl, only now unfurling to the world. It was truly quite remarkable; she was luminous, intoxicated by newfound desires and dreams. On the whole, it was an extremely naturalistic rendition from Nunez - in a role easily tempted by histrionics, she was acutely beatific. The mirror pas de deux passed by in one languorous simultaneous flow, as silken and trance-like as a real dream, hushed by a young girl's awe. And when she awakens from the secretive dreamworld, no actions are needed by Nunez to express the pivotally profound effect this experience has wrought upon her - all that is needed are her lustrous eyes and flushed skin staring out.

This delectable sense of a reverie that pervaded the first two acts make the third all the more striking. A key point of Pushkin's poem was the unassailable interchange between fiction and life, the boundaries of which are often blurred in Tatyana's dreamy mind. We see this onstage with Onegin's unexplained nature and mystery, with the often dark and indistinct backdrops, the picture-perfect poises of the corps de ballet, who stay perfectly still behind the 'E.O' monogrammed mesh, waiting for a chapter to begin before they whirl into a stately ball waltz. Even the death of Lensky, who falls silently and poetically is somewhat demure. Yet, in Act 3, this is abandoned. Years have passed, and Tatyana has matured. She arrives on the arm of her husband (Ryoichi Hirano as Prince Gremin - so wonderfully stately and the antithesis to Onegin) and is resplendent as the adored princess - yet we see restrain and reserve about her that was so markedly absent in her adolescence. When she spies Onegin, who is profoundly shaken by her transformation, she displays intelligence in maintaining social courtesy and turning away to devote her attention to her husband, who is gracious and has treated her well. Yet, alone, she holds the remnants of the letter her tremulous self once wrote him and is greatly disturbed. Here, Tatyana and Onegin meet for the first time as mental equals. The result is thoroughly breathtaking; the final pas de deux is complex and transforming in the depths of its sorrow and repent. Yet despite the highly charged setting, there is no impetuosity in their movements - rather, Nunez's arms seem to fleetingly cradle Soares to her chest in a burst of unassailable longing before sadly releasing him. Soares' Onegin is desperate and bitterly repentant - he now sees the unmistakable virtue of the girl, but his own actions have removed her forever. Tatyana's youthful dreams of romance have ended and the two must part in the thrust of reality.

Nunez and Soares
As strong as the unbreakable bond and understanding between the two artists is, it is only amplified and augmented by the audience. The Royal Opera House is a peculiar place of tradition and reward; Nunez's services and complete devotion to Covent Garden is a point of pride - she is the prodigal, shining daughter and following the exits of Rojo and Cojocaru, the undisputed sweetheart, the one that embodies the Royal Ballet like no other. It is hard to overstate the depth of their love for Marianela Nunez; even starry additions to the principal roster have not dampened their interest. Where others can stun the audience into a frenzy and inspire awe, the tenderness that Nunez exudes has a poignancy that only the Covent Garden crowd can understand. Such a naturalistic, honest portrayal might not work in other houses, but here, its power is indescribable. The ovation she and Soares received upon their repeated curtain calls was well earned and honestly deserved - a real show of adoration for a remarkable artist.

The other remarkable performance of the night belonged to Muntagirov's Lensky, who made a most successful debut. He seems to come from the school of pure romance - every extension and line of his body has a noble mien, and there is a softness to the great elasticity of his leaps that commands attention. While his Act 1 solo perhaps lacked the charm that comes with experience in the role, his Act 2 passage of sorrow and disillusionment was a thing of pure beauty. His aching long limbs, boyish countenance and transparency provided the perfect foil to Soares' arrogance - he, more than anyone else, played into Cranko's vision of Tatyana's storybook romance.  

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

'Andrea Chénier' with Jonas Kaufmann and Eva-Maria Westbroek at the Royal Opera House

A new year at the Royal Opera House hails a new production of a rarely performed opera - Umberto Giordano's Andrea Chénier, in its first Covent Garden appearance in thirty years. More hung on the opening night than imagined - in what has, so far, been an anticlimactic season for opera, with new productions of Un Ballo in Maschera and Idomeneo spectacularly failing to please.

The scene is set well enough. The curtain rises on a backdrop so opulent, so ostentatious, with every available surface slathered in gold, it is more overwhelming than aesthetically pleasing. Perhaps this is the intended effect, given the predicament of the Parisian aristocrats crowding the stage - studiously ignoring the rumblings of civilian unrest flooding the city streets. In comes our Maddalena, suitably petulant, and her mother, appropriately aggrieved. The guests flock in, all carefully attired if airy and insubstantial in pale pastels, determined to continue vapidly fluttering in their rapidly crumbling sphere of hierarchy prestige. At the edge hovers Andrea Chénier, a surly browed youth discomfited by such outrageous luxury. Teased, scolded and baited, he unfurls with righteousness - and an outpour of reproach, so affecting in its gravity and rectitude. Kaufmann's "Un dì all'azzuro spazio" was wondrous in its invigorated lament. 

And yet, for the best part of three acts, the glory of his vocal fortitude was unmatched in believability. Andrea Chenier is a character perhaps singularly affecting as the embodiment of compelled, virile youth - the child of ideals and brevity. This conviction colours his first meeting with Maddalena - she is profoundly shaken by the purity of his hope; while the sharpness of his reprimand strikes her and wounds her like a blow, affecting far deeper than any stimulant in her small gilded world. Kaufmann's Chenier is stately and self-assured, but wanting in passion. His voice is indisputably superb and unsurpassed - the torment in there is real - but he outwardly expresses no such full-bodied commitment. 

Within this drawback lies a more deep-rooted complaint about the production at large. Perhaps abashed and suffering from the criticisms plaguing most new productions at the ROH over the past year or so - notable examples being last season's Manon Lescaut and Don Giovanni - there is an air of caution that permeates the company. They tell us, on the promotional material, that this is a tale of glory! Liberty! Grand passion! Yet, nowhere is it evident. The sets are inoffensive, but lacking character - in particular, the expansive pale wood of Act 3 stripped the trial scene of much of its high tension, unfortunately denouncing it as the least gripping instalment of the tale. The orchestra play rousingly, but themselves fail to rouse the singers out of their refined shells (though Pappano tried so hard, I am told, that he nearly went through the boards in the final act). The characters are feelingly sung, but much defies emotional attachment. When Chénier and Maddalena unite in the heart of war-ridden Paris in Act 2, the climatic love scene whereupon two souls find idealistic solace in the midst of tragedy, we see not the abandon of passion that cannot be contained even in the face of danger, which precipitates their deaths. Chénier has searched blindly for a love that he has felt "brushing by him on the street", which he has chased with all the dogged determination of an artist in delirium. Yet, why does he recline on the table in such a stately and assured manner, calmly waiting for Maddalena to finish professing her sad story? Their first love duet was dispatched beautifully, but why did the audience not sigh collectively together with the crossed lovers? Why, in Act 3, does he not decry the parody of justice facing him, with the indignation and sorrow he expressed in the Contessa's drawing room, a parody which goes against his very ideals? The caution is not only his; the entire company had very much an air of 'getting the job done' rather than exuding the fiery fervour of a country overhauling its entire social regime. We are presented with Paris in the dirt, Paris in the dust, a Paris run by urchins - yet why does everything seem so orderly and undefiled? The result verges on disappointing.

Save, however, for Act 4, where something completely intangible seemed to fall into place. Call it first night teething problems, but at the bleak, cold end, Chénier and Maddalena seemed to truly reconcile for the first time. And what a stupendously wondrous effect it had! From his rousing solo "Come un bel dì di maggio" we heard what we had so long desired - profundity and conviction. A revolutionary, an idealist, an artist - the conviction, so solid and wrapped beguilingly in wistfully poetic language is manifest. Kaufmann's naturally magnetic open tone assumed profound new gravitas. The momentum continued, together with a gleeful Pappano. Westbroek's Maddalena too rose to the challenge. Their final duet, "Vicino a te" is gripping in its stark, steely grit - these lovers who walk towards death with a relieved heart and iron will are the embodiment of the liberty and passion we were promised. Their fascination of freedom extends to surpass mortal fear - they sing of death with such intensity, verging on piety, that it is darkly fascinating and truly gripping. Their end is not quite noble, but it is orphic and glorious.

Kaufmann & Westbroek curtatin call