Davide Livermore: I Often Think about the Future Fate of Opera Characters
Just a few days remain before the long-awaited premiere of Eugene Onegin. This opera has been a repertoire staple at opera houses all over the world for almost two centuries. In his work, the composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky celebrates the lofty sentiments and poetic soul of Pushkin’s Tatyana. This magnificent opera will premiere at the Astana Opera on February 8 and 9 in the interpretation of the famous Italian director Davide Livermore and renowned maestro Alan Buribayev with the support of the Ministry of Culture and Sports of the Republic of Kazakhstan.
Director Davide Livermore has strong friendly ties with the Astana Opera. His first collaboration with the capital’s opera house took place in 2017, when Livermore was a jury member of the prestigious Placido Domingo’s Operalia, The World Opera Competition. At that time, the Italian stage director noted that culture development is at a very high level in Kazakhstan. Davide Livermore also spoke about the uniqueness of the Astana Opera House. Last summer, he staged Puccini’s Turandot at the Astana Opera, and today he is working on the production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin.
“At the Astana Opera superb working conditions are created. It is gratifying that each cultural event is treated here with great reverence. For example, we repeatedly met with Minister Arystanbek Mukhamediuly throughout the staging works, and he took an active part in the creative process of preparing the opera Eugene Onegin. Moreover, we had wonderful time making music together, the minister is an excellent musician,” Davide Livermore said.
Eugene Onegin or Tatyana Larina?
The novel in verse and opera have the same name, but it is known that Tchaikovsky, while retaining the original characteristics of the main heroes, focused on Tatyana Larina and initially wanted to call the opera after this character. The scenes of the opera organically depict the emotional experiences of lyrical heroes, emphasizing the depth of their feelings and emotions. The success of Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin was that each viewer found in the musical work an echo of his or her own experiences and feelings, and the heroes of the drama were perceived by the audience as living, relatable people.
Director Davide Livermore believes that the opera Eugene Onegin is an integral part of emotional education for many generations.
“I would like for the viewers after watching the performance to say that this story is relevant today and that it resonates with them and touches their emotions. In this production we will see Tatyana’s inner world. We will learn how a young girl discovers her womanhood, perfectly aware of what she has lost, what she has gained and discovered in life. All of this happens with a feeling of deep maturity. I would also like the audience’s attention to be focused precisely on the depiction of Tatyana’s inner world,” Director Davide Livermore explains.
For this purpose, at the beginning of the opera the director included a new scene that is not in the score: the old, dying Tatyana, while summing up her life, is reminiscing about the cherished love story, hidden in far corners of her soul, which has caused the greatest upheavals and the strongest emotions of her life.
Music Director and Conductor Alan Buribayev notes that Tchaikovsky, turning to this novel and organizing the text into a libretto for the opera, understood what a great responsibility that was, as Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin was immensely popular at all times.
“The composer wrote this opera in 1877, almost 50 years after the novel was created. Tchaikovsky included 7 scenes in it, all of which are mainly associated with Tatyana, as she is the key character for him. Therefore, the composer began to write the opera from the scene of Tatyana’s letter. Two thirds of the opera were created very quickly – in the summer of 1877. He finished the next part of the opera only in February next year because of the hassle with his marriage.”
During the rehearsals, the maestro explains that each character in the opera has his or her own musical image.
“I try to warm up the orchestra in the moments where Lensky appears, because he has a very hot temper, and make it ice cold in the scenes with cynical, bone-dry Onegin, in accordance with Pushkin’s description of them, “They came together. Waves and stones, Or flame and ice, or verse and prose.”
As the conductor explains, the composer wrote to Nikolai Rubinstein that the opera should be performed by young conservatory students, who know little about life, and thus will have a fresh approach to this story. However, a completely different fate awaited this opera, and today it is featured in all the leading international opera houses and it is one of the most beloved operas in the world. “I am happy that now it will be added to the Astana Opera’s repertoire”, concluded the maestro.
While the stage director and the conductor are working on the content of the opera, all the production workshops in the opera house are working on its design.
The Head of the Design and Production Complex Victor Carare noted that the labor-intensive preparation process took about six months.
“Lush nature in this production will be in harmony with the architecture. The performance is full of video projections. In one of the houses where the main characters live, LED screens, showing colorful imagery, are mounted instead of windows. Animals are involved in the performance, for example, horses will participate in the duel scene, and the audience will also see a horse-drawn phaeton. In addition, the lighting designer’s work, which favorably emphasizes extensive sets that fill the entire stage, will be interesting for the viewers. Undoubtedly, the audience will be impressed by the interior, decorated with a huge chandelier. A large rotating circle with young couples dancing on it will also amaze the theatregoers, and a big mirror will complete the picture. This production is different from many previous ones in that there are many moving set elements in it.”
Costume Designers Sofya Tasmagambetova and Pavel Dragunov are working on Eugene Onegin for the first time. They have prepared around 250 costumes for this production, using the historical cuts and retaining the technologies of 1820s, so that the costumes look like reconstructions of that era’s attire.
Designer Sofya Tasmagambetova created contrasting women’s costumes for all three acts. Peasant women’s dresses look rather elaborate and have interesting trimming. Speaking about the main characters’ costumes, it was decided to surprise the audience gradually.
“It is enough to imagine classic Pushkin’s times to understand the style of the production. It all starts quite simply: styles and finishing match the scene in the garden, and there will be more sumptuous, elegant, luxurious and sophisticated costumes in the scenes of Tatyana’s birthday and Gremin’s ball. We dyed 300 meters of organza in different shades of blue for this scene’s costumes. It was important not to lose the lightness, airiness, since the color itself is quite ‘heavy’. One of my favorite costumes was married Tatyana’s gown. It reflects the deep mental state of the heroine. However, each character’s personality, age and social status will be quite clearly stated in the costumes. For example, coquettish, frivolous Olga will be dressed in brighter dresses. All women’s costumes are united by a common feature – they will be multi-layered and voluminous. In addition, almost all gowns are finished by hand,” Sofya Tasmagambetova said.
“In the scene of Tatyana’s birthday, we focused on the year 1820, just like in Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, but in the scene of Gremin’s ball we moved the timeframe a little and showed the year 1830, not 1826, like in the novel. This is due to the fact that in the 1830s the costumes were more interesting, and we also wanted to demonstrate the contrast of the times. Strangely enough, all the theatre designers working on the opera Eugene Onegin move the action 50-60 years forward. Even designers making historical productions show the end of the 19th century, because the costumes of 1820s are much more difficult to make than the costumes of the end of 1870s, as they are clearer and closer to us. In our case, the audience will see tailcoats tailored in the fashion as close to the original as possible. I think everyone will be impressed by very complex tiered hairstyles adorned with feathers and wigs of the singers. We treated this work with great sense of responsibility, studied the details and the history of the opera’s creation for a long time. We tried to be authentic, I hope we succeeded,” Pavel Dragunov explains.
Costume designers, in accordance with the director’s vision, used a restrained color palette. Fabrics fully correspond with the presented time period: muslin, taffeta, silk and others. Interestingly, back in those days, dandies wore 5-6 vests, and it took several hours to tie a cravat, but the singers need to tie them once and put on very quickly. For this, the designers will use small theatrical tricks.
The opera house’s prop masters also have their own tricks of the trade. Their main task was to make the use of props comfortable for the singers during the performance. For example, they make sure that 25 pitchforks and rakes for the peasants are lightweight, yet sturdy at the same time. The most painstaking work was done on the orders and medals. The objects, although small, were made very realistic. The filigree craftsmanship of all the pieces includes cutting the metal precisely to give it a special ornate form of the orders, and also inlaying it with artificial stones. Looking closely, it is possible to even see a lacquered pattern in the middle.
According to the libretto, various treats were prepared for the guests in the scenes of Tatyana’s birthday and the ball. The process of making cookies is very laborious, there are about 800 – 900 of them. The difficulty is that they are very sculptural in shape, made on the basis of papier-mâché technology. Multicolored paint is applied to the cookies, as the prop masters explain, this is the ‘cream’, and all of them feel a little bit like pastry chefs at these moments.
Craftswomen create romantic fans with lace trim, reticules, knitting baskets, and plastic glasses that cannot be distinguished from crystal ones at all. Male prop masters make candelabras, smoking pipes, walking sticks, trays, pocket-watch fobs, and, of course, duel revolvers…
On a High Note
The duel scene is already being rehearsed in the auditorium. Onegin and Lensky count down the steps and take aim at each other. Alexey Isaev (Russia) and Talgat Mussabaev are preparing the part of Onegin.
Talgat says that he first performed this role at the age of 24 at the Bolshoi Theatre of Russia.
“The part of Eugene Onegin has always been close to me, it fits my voice. This opera is very complex, everything must be performed perfectly. Onegin’s character is very multifaceted; one can work endlessly on it. With age, a person reevaluates himself, so does my hero, who used to treat people ambiguously, not even understanding himself at times. I think his personality is taken from life. I prefer to approach the characters of the opera not as heroes and villains, but as ordinary people with their own complex destinies. I have performed this part many times in various opera houses, but I think that the best version will be in ours,” Talgat Mussabayev says.
His colleague, Medet Chotabayev, is preparing the part of Lensky, which has opened the doors for the singer to a stage career.
“After graduating from the conservatory, this was my first role; I made my opera debut with it and I was so thrilled that at some point I wanted to run away from the stage. After many years, working on this part at the Astana Opera, I face not only challenging vocal tasks, but also having to convey the character interpretation by using acting skills. At the moment, the rehearsal process, most interesting for all artists, is underway, and it is a great pleasure for me to immerse myself in this work. This is a huge responsibility, because everyone knows this story from their school years, and therefore, it is necessary to create such incredible magic onstage so that the audience will believe us.”
Zhan Tapin, who is feeling grateful to his musical destiny to have a chance reacquaint himself with this opera, is also preparing the part of Lensky.
“Tchaikovsky’s music conveys fine aspects of the human soul. Lensky is a poet, a romantic. He is unique in his own way. I always go onstage in this role with great awe and thrill. My hero dies in a duel, and I must say that death scenes are always difficult to perform. I worry about Lensky, I pity him and every time I focus in order to get into character. It is also important for me to show his first love, his excitement, I know that these scenes inspire the audience very much.”
Galina Cheplakova and Aigul Niyazova are preparing the leading role of Tatyana.
If Galina Cheplakova takes the stage in this role for the first time, Aigul Niyazova has starred in this part more than once.
“This work was created by two geniuses – Alexander Pushkin and Pyotr Tchaikovsky. It can rightly be called a world classical masterpiece. The entire creative team is anticipating the premiere, at the moment the staging work is underway on the production. This heroine is very thrilling for me, as, after all, Tatyana Larina is the main character of Tchaikovsky’s opera. The main idea and complexity of this character is that, throughout the opera, Tatyana, with the one and only great love of her life, is undergoing a transformation from a young girl to a high-society lady. Despite her feelings, she accepts her fate and stays true to the duty of honor and morality. I believe that this opera can touch the hearts of everyone in the auditorium,” Aigul Niyazova emphasized.
Galina Cheplakova will present her own interpretation of Tatyana.
“My heroine is sentimental, gentle, dreamy, tender, undoubtedly, with a rich inner world, and she certainly goes through a lot. I never thought that this part would suit me, until I have taken it to heart all the way through to the end, and then I realized that it reflects my inner self. I am convinced that in order to be able to portray this character, you need to rely on life experience: to have known love, experienced both good and bitter moments of this wonderful feeling. Working on this production, the director strived to find an individual approach to each soloist.”
Dina Khamzina and Tatyana Vitsinskaya will portray Tatyana’s sister Olga.
Dina Khamzina’s talent was applauded at many venues, including the Bolshoi Theatre of Russia, where she created a superb portrayal of Olga. The singer explains that in every part she performs she always tries to find some kind of zest.
“In Olga, her liveliness and flightiness come to the forefront. She is good-natured, easy-going, tries to see only good things around her and rejoice in it. She can be portrayed in different ways. In terms of vocals, we have made many findings, which should cause an interesting public reaction. I performed this role at the Bolshoi Theatre of Russia, the Abai Opera House. I like that the director in this current production does not stray far from the original source. This is a classic production in which it is necessary to convey the spirit of the era, and, of course, a lot depends on acting. We have a wonderful production team, which shares new valuable experience with us.”
For Tatyana Vitsinskaya, Olga is one of her favorite roles.
“I think the audience will be very pleased with the upcoming premiere, as the director’s vision of the characters fully coincides with what Pushkin gives us. We try to portray these characters through our artistic performances, vocals and Tchaikovsky’s great music. Before the production work began, I reread the novel and watched many different productions on the Internet. Certainly, I will rely on the already existing experience of performing this role, but I will try to find new colors in my voice to convey the beauty of this part. As a rule, all the mezzo-soprano roles tend to be dramatic, Olga’s part is perhaps one of the few where the heroine is happy, beautiful, young, which gives me a special inspiration.”
In addition to vocalists, ballet dancers under the direction of Choreographer Elena Sherstneva did a tremendous work in preparation for the premiere.
The opera Eugene Onegin is timeless, which is partly due to the nature of the novel itself. What fate awaits this production at the Astana Opera is difficult to say, but the fact that everyone working on it has unconditional love for Eugene Onegin and treated the material with great reverence gives confidence in its success.
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