Eugene Onegin, Coliseum, London
Thomas Larcher, Wigmore Hall, London
Deborah Warner's take on Tchaikovsky's gold-spun opera is at times incendiary, but why does she take so long to make us care?
Sunday 20 November 2011
A single kiss in a heartbeat of silence, a moment's respite from pain.
As conductor Edward Gardner presses the pause button on Tchaikovsky's spun-gold score, Deborah Warner's English National Opera production of Eugene Onegin finally ignites. Lips locked, Tatiana and Onegin can dream of what might have been, what still might be. It's too late, of course, and the third heart to be broken in this triptych of heartbreaks is about to shatter.
After the visual provocations of Barrie Kosky's Castor and Pollux, it is fascinating to feel the shock of a minute's silence in an otherwise traditional Onegin. How better to suspend disbelief in a work so well-known? But why leave it so late to make us feel, to make us care? Mindful perhaps of the conservative New York audience, Warner is sparing in her interventions in this ENO/Metropolitan co-commission. Though visually opulent, the production is emotionally costive, less a living drama than the enactment of a ritual in an imagined Russia of balletic serfs and bearded priests.
At its sparest, Warner's work remains incendiary. In the sudden shaft of sunlight on Tatiana's book in Act I, the pietà at the close of Act II and the kiss of Act III, text, score and character are illuminated. Elsewhere, it's touristic, stagey, superficial. While Claudia Huckle's Olga is beautifully detailed, every wrinkle of her pretty nose expressive of the younger sister's temperament, Catherine Wyn-Rogers as the nurse, Adrian Thompson's Monsieur Triquet, Brindley Sherratt's Gremin and Diana Montague's Larina are under-directed. Experienced artists and fine singers all, they can cope. But it's a shame more time wasn't spent on them, and less on the army of pumpkin-polishing peasants.
In the pit, Gardner's pacing is superb: bold, engaged and imaginative. The orchestral sound is magnificent, the chorus on fine form. But though Toby Spence's Lensky makes an immediate impact – flirtatious and proud, with real beauty and richness of sound – Amanda Echalaz's Tatiana is diffident and hard-edged. Inexpressive in Act I, Audun Iversen's Onegin shows his vulnerability as he brushes the hair from his dead friend's brow, his tone grave and tender. Like the kiss, it's too little, too late.
Last weekend, the Wigmore Hall devoted a day to the chamber music of Thomas Larcher, with performances by cellist Thomas Demenga, Larcher himself, Quatuor Diotima, the Belcea Quartet and Mark Padmore, dedicatee of Larcher's latest song-cycle, A Padmore Cycle. As immersion projects go, this was a trip to a luxury spa. Larcher's music is well-made, all static beauty, scrabbling agitations, muted glissandi, elegant splinters and brief, sinus-clearing Romantic chords. Above all, it is well-read, with allusions to Schubert, Berg and Schoenberg.
A few improvisatory passages apart, nothing is left to chance. Larcher's aesthetic extends to the programme art (his own) and the uniform beauty of the smooth, grey pebbles he uses in the works for prepared piano. The artists he writes for share his attention to detail. From Diotima's poised readings of IXXU and Madhares, to soprano Christina Landshamer's star-bright intonation of My Illness is the Medicine I Need, and Padmore's keening, whispered aphorisms, these were faultless performances. And yet ...
As the day progressed, I slipped from enchantment to disgruntlement. Set against the sub-zero spritz of Kraken and the coppery drone of the Piano Quintet, Larcher's anthology of miniatures, Poems – 12 Pieces for Pianists and Other Children seemed too slight and self-reflexive for public performance, a minimalist Carnival of the Animals. The programme notes were a satirist's dream. Mumien, Larcher writes, conjures "elderberries in the stomach", while My Illness takes its text from Benetton's Colors magazine. What next? A World of Interiors cantata?
Only a sadist would wish the difficulties suffered by, say, Schubert on Larcher. But I can't help feeling a little grit would enrich his world view. Instead of reading interviews with psychiatric patients in a photo-essay, he could interview them himself. Instead of dreaming about the White Mountains of Crete, he could go there. Madhares is a glamorous idea of sun-scorched earth, not the real, goaty, scrubby thing, which, if it had a voice, would probably be a Cathy Berberian scream. Piece by piece, Larcher's perfect soundworld is mesmerising. Consumed in bulk, it is music for people who organise their bookshelves by the colour of the spines.
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