The Svelte Lady Sings
For more than aácentury, Russian productions ofáTchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin have followed one simple rule: itáain't over till the fat lady sings. Tatiana, Onegin's young soprano heroine, isáthe most coveted female role ináRussian opera. But the stage history ofáthe part isáone ofáhefty, elderly prima donnas. Byáthe time aáRussian soprano isáable toásecure the part ofáTatiana, far too many decades and dress sizes have passed her by.
Until now. Dimitri Tchnerniakov's glistening Bolshoi production, invited toáthis year's Golden Mask Festival, rests onáthe shoulders ofáaánew breed ofáTatiana: Yekaterina Scherbachenko. Aástunningly beautiful young blonde, Scherbachenko looks more like aárunway model than anáimperial soprano. From her first entrance, she heralds aánew tradition for the role. The impact upon Russian audiences has been enormous. AsáAnatoly Smeliansky noted: When Iásaw her, Iáwas shocked. Never inámyálife had Iáseen aáTatiana who looked like that.
But the power ofáScherbachenko's performance isáinámore than merely looks. Watching her move through Tchnerniakov's lavish sets isáproof positive that the era ofástatic opera staging isádead. Scherbachenko glides, sprints, and darts across the stage asáshe wrestles with her obsession over Onegin. Even when silent and ináthe background during group scenes, she writhes along the upstage walls, desperate toáescape the oppressive gossip ofáher mother's house.
Toáfully understand the power ofáScherbachenko's movement, one must look atáher stunning rendition ofáthe Letter Scene. The opera's signature aria, the Letter Scene marks Tatiana's fateful decision toápursue her love for Onegin. Because ofáthe music's immense difficulty, directors often stage the scene soáthat Tatiana can stand still and focus onáthe music. InáMoshe Lieser's Mariinsky Theater staging, Tatiana lays comfortably onáher bed for the entire scene. For the Stanislavski/Nemerovich-Danchenko Musical Theater Onegin, director Alexander Titel gives his Tatiana aánarrow metal bridge onáwhich toámove. When the singer does move, itáseems more from boredom than from character-driven feeling.
Atáthe Bolshoi, Scherbachenko begins the aria traditionally, sitting ináaáchair. But asáthe score intensifies, soádoes her physicality. Byáthe second stanza, she has torn her letter toáshreds and roams the stage ináaáfrenzy, unable toábottle upáher unrequited love. Atáone ofáthe few vocal breaks, Scherbachenko leaps atop anáenormous table. Waiting for her next stanza, she crawls atop the table onáall fours like aáferal cat. Byáthe time the aria has finished, nearly ten minutes later, she has used her body toáexplore every option the character has within her grasp. Asáthe orchestra plays its final notes, she serenely stands atop aáchair, finally able toáaccept her decision. Bathed ináblue light, she slowly glides towards the window, resting along the sill toáwatch the sun rise.
Scherbachenko's Tatiana isánot aátragic victim, but aáself-empowered modern woman. For the opera's final two episodes, set many years after Onegin spurns Tatiana's letter, Scherbachenko has completely transformed. Clad ináaástunning silver gown, beehive hairdo, and pearls, Scherbachenko's Tatiana isánow aámodern debutante, anáelitist ice queen. When her husband re-introduces her toáOnegin, she looks atáher former love indifferently. She towers over Onegin, aápristine temple ofárock-solid womanhood.
Byáavoiding the classic victim type, Tchnerniakov and Scherbachenko have totally reimagined Onegin for the present day. When Tatiana refuses toáyield toáOnegin's advances ináthe final episode, itáisn't out ofáduty toáher husband. It's because Scherbachenko's glamorous Tatiana isánow totally out ofáOnegin's league. Her abandonment ofáOnegin fuels his tragedy. Onegin has not simply lost the love ofáaáshy country girl, but has rather ruined his one chance with aásmoldering seductress. Thanks toáTchnerniakov and Scherbachenko, the audience has witnessed aárevolution ináRussian opera. This time, the gorgeous, svelte blonde has the last laugh.