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| the svelte lady sings |

The Svelte Lady Sings

By Sean Bartley

For more than acentury, Russian productions ofTchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin have followed one simple rule: itain't over till the fat lady sings. Tatiana, Onegin's young soprano heroine, isthe most coveted female role inRussian opera. But the stage history ofthe part isone ofhefty, elderly prima donnas. Bythe time aRussian soprano isable tosecure the part ofTatiana, far too many decades and dress sizes have passed her by.

Until now. Dimitri Tchnerniakov's glistening Bolshoi production, invited tothis year's Golden Mask Festival, rests onthe shoulders ofanew breed ofTatiana: Yekaterina Scherbachenko. Astunningly beautiful young blonde, Scherbachenko looks more like arunway model than animperial soprano. From her first entrance, she heralds anew tradition for the role. The impact upon Russian audiences has been enormous. AsAnatoly Smeliansky noted: “When Isaw her, Iwas shocked. Never inmylife had Iseen aTatiana who looked like that.”

But the power ofScherbachenko's performance isinmore than merely looks. Watching her move through Tchnerniakov's lavish sets isproof positive that the era ofstatic opera staging isdead. Scherbachenko glides, sprints, and darts across the stage asshe wrestles with her obsession over Onegin. Even when silent and inthe background during group scenes, she writhes along the upstage walls, desperate toescape the oppressive gossip ofher mother's house.

Tofully understand the power ofScherbachenko's movement, one must look ather stunning rendition ofthe Letter Scene. The opera's signature aria, the Letter Scene marks Tatiana's fateful decision topursue her love for Onegin. Because ofthe music's immense difficulty, directors often stage the scene sothat Tatiana can stand still and focus onthe music. InMoshe Lieser's Mariinsky Theater staging, Tatiana lays comfortably onher bed for the entire scene. For the Stanislavski/Nemerovich-Danchenko Musical Theater Onegin, director Alexander Titel gives his Tatiana anarrow metal bridge onwhich tomove. When the singer does move, itseems more from boredom than from character-driven feeling.

Atthe Bolshoi, Scherbachenko begins the aria traditionally, sitting inachair. But asthe score intensifies, sodoes her physicality. Bythe second stanza, she has torn her letter toshreds and roams the stage inafrenzy, unable tobottle upher unrequited love. Atone ofthe few vocal breaks, Scherbachenko leaps atop anenormous table. Waiting for her next stanza, she crawls atop the table onall fours like aferal cat. Bythe time the aria has finished, nearly ten minutes later, she has used her body toexplore every option the character has within her grasp. Asthe orchestra plays its final notes, she serenely stands atop achair, finally able toaccept her decision. Bathed inblue light, she slowly glides towards the window, resting along the sill towatch the sun rise.

Scherbachenko's Tatiana isnot atragic victim, but aself-empowered modern woman. For the opera's final two episodes, set many years after Onegin spurns Tatiana's letter, Scherbachenko has completely transformed. Clad inastunning silver gown, beehive hairdo, and pearls, Scherbachenko's Tatiana isnow amodern debutante, anelitist ice queen. When her husband re-introduces her toOnegin, she looks ather former love indifferently. She towers over Onegin, apristine temple ofrock-solid womanhood.

Byavoiding the classic victim type, Tchnerniakov and Scherbachenko have totally reimagined Onegin for the present day. When Tatiana refuses toyield toOnegin's advances inthe final episode, itisn't out ofduty toher husband. It's because Scherbachenko's glamorous Tatiana isnow totally out ofOnegin's league. Her abandonment ofOnegin fuels his tragedy. Onegin has not simply lost the love ofashy country girl, but has rather ruined his one chance with asmoldering seductress. Thanks toTchnerniakov and Scherbachenko, the audience has witnessed arevolution inRussian opera. This time, the gorgeous, svelte blonde has the last laugh.