SAN FRANCISCO — The great letter scene in Tchaikovsky's--and Pushkin's--"Eugene Onegin" told it all at the San Francisco Opera Wednesday night.
Mirella Freni as the very young, painfully shy, dangerously sensitive Tatiana had discovered love. She spent a sleepless night examining her confounding, contradictory emotions. Then, with wondrous, febrile impetuousity, she scribbled a fateful declaration of eternal devotion to the mysterious, brooding, eminently worldly stranger she had just met.
The veteran Italian soprano may not have sounded quite like the personification of the Russian ideal. Her timbre is a bit too soft-grained for that. But it hardly mattered. She looked like a radiant, properly gawky teen-ager, acted with poignant simplicity and, despite the blemish of sagging pitch in the ultimate climax, sang with subtle inflection and irresistible ardor.
The audience responded with the mid-scene ovation she deserved. Then came a terrible aesthetic jolt.
The introvert Tatiana disappeared. In her place, we suddenly saw Freni the extrovert diva. She beamed, clasped her hands in prayerful, mock-incredulous gratitude, nodded her head, milked the applause.
The drama was abandoned, the mood destroyed.
Later, Denes Gulyas as the unhappy Lenski, mused poignantly on his betrayal and imminent death, then paused to take a disruptive bow. Finally, Nicolai Ghiaurov as the noble, elderly Prince Gremin sang his marvelous rolling-basso ode to his young wife. Before the sentiment could even begin to settle, he too stepped out of character and acknowledged the fans.
If "Onegin" were a knock-'em-dead circus opera, one might not have minded the unaccustomed ego indulgences too much. If the performance in question had been totally devoid of poetry, the losses in focus and lapses in taste might not have been too disturbing.
But the San Francisco "Onegin" suffered a stylistic identity crisis. It seemed to concern itself with serious artistic expression only when the participants felt like it. The performance dealt in fragile introspection one moment, old-fashioned show-biz maneuvers the next.
Robin Don's delicate sets, created for Ottawa in 1983 and admired last year in San Diego, are intimately scaled. They were dwarfed by the portentous San Francisco proscenium.
John Copley's staging scheme, originally a telling little study of personal relationships, has been blown up, generalized and cluttered in a sad attempt to accommodate large spaces and old conventions. Much has been lost in the translation from intimate drama to grand opera.
The communicative problems were aggravated further by the conductor. Where Tchaikovsky demanded passion, expansive lyricism and throbbing intensity, Richard Bradshaw provided brisk efficiency and emotional restraint. It was frustrating.
Under the circumstances, one had to be grateful for isolated, individual achievements.
Freni traced Tatiana's progress from insecure child to wise sophisticate with eloquent clarity. Although a bit dry of voice, Thomas Allen defined Onegin's increasing passion and self-awareness with intelligence and exceptionally incisive vocalism.
Gulyas as Lenski introduced a rather tight and edgy tenor, artfully manipulated. Although Ghiaurov's once-plangent basso sounded worn, he still could project the pathos of Gremin's virtually foolproof aria.
Sandra Walker slighted the sensuous appeal of Tatiana's flighty sister, Olga, but managed the descending contralto lines deftly. Donna Petersen, a holdover from the 1971 San Francisco cast, attended lovingly--and most affectingly--to the duties of the old nurse Filipyevna. Joseph Frank sang the nostalgic couplets of Monsieur Triquet with sweetness compromised by effete caricature.
Carla Cook was the amiable Mme. Larina, Philip Skinner the imposing Zaretsky.
The self-conscious balletic interpolations of Vassili Sulich resisted integration with the surrounding drama, as usual.
The opera was sung in Russian or, I am told, varyingly reasonable facsimiles thereof. The plot was explained, of course, in distracting supertitles.