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The Grim Weeper

There used to be a music critic in town who could never write about the music of Piotr Ilitch (“Pete”) Tchaikovsky without throwing in the pet epithet “slush pump.” It rendered the critic predictable, which is the worst fate that can befall anyone in this line of work. It was also unfair. In the last couple of weeks we’ve had our share of Tchaikovsky — the Sixth Symphony at the Philharmonic and Eugene Onegin at Opera Pacific in Costa Mesa — and in neither work could I detect even enough slush to prime a pump, let alone set it into full gushing activity.

Eugene Onegin stands alone. Alexander Pushkin’s soaring verses virtually invented romantic Russian-ness; Tchaikovsky’s music enhanced their melancholic, lyric shape and served as a bridge to the intense humanness of Chekhov’s dramas. The young Onegin, tampering at will and without remorse with the lives of those around him, will age under Chekhov’s all-knowing pen into the Trigorin of The Seagull; Pushkin’s lovelorn Tatyana pulls herself out of her funk after Onegin’s rejection, as Chekhov’s Nina cannot.

Nor, unfortunately, could the earnest forces at Opera Pacific, whose courageous lunge at the high passions and the subtle shadings of Tchaikovsky’s marvelous opera — the first full-scale staging of the work in this area, unless memory deceives, in many a decade — fell fatally wide of the mark. A program note by Colin Graham, who directed and whose dossier is long and distinguished, reflected his awareness of the opera’s antecedents, of Tchaikovsky’s efforts to frame the insecurities of his characters by casting the opera with students, of the efforts of the great Stanislavsky to preserve in his production the very overtones in the work that the staging in Costa Mesa willfully ignores. I had to think back to the small-scale, rather slapdash Onegin that a touring company from St. Petersburg brought to the Cerritos Center last season, with its handful of scenery and its eager, young, not-quite-ready cast; that hapless evening, it now seems in retrospect, was actually a more accurate rendering of those overtones than Opera Pacific’s elephantine escapade.

There was little of Pushkin/Tchaikovsky’s “cold dandy” in Lucio Gallo’s tremolo-ridden Onegin, who stalked the stage in a diabolical manner more likely to send maidens to hide under the bed than to pen love letters. Hugh Smith’s hulking loppus of a Lensky was hardly the amorous adolescent of Tchaikovsky’s ideals, although he hit some brave high notes in his big aria and drew the evening’s largest hand. Mary Mills was a pretty if passionless Tatyana, who sang her moving “letter aria” as if composing it on a word processor. Guest conductor Stephen Lord’s uneventful leadership was a step or two down from the standards Opera Pacific has been lately setting under John DeMain; Pier Luigi Samaritani’s sets would serve dozens of heavy, melodramatic operas but encapsulated little of the bittersweet elegance of this one special masterpiece. The opera was said to be sung in Russian, as it may indeed have been. Some bits from Pushkin’s poetry were flashed on the scrim between scenes, reduced to English doggerel; that, in fact, somewhat epitomized the treatment accorded the entire work.

When Bernard Rands taught composition at UC San Diego, his music was frequently performed hereabouts; the recent revival of his Canti del Sole reminded us of what we’ve been missing. There is a special magic about anthology pieces — Britten’s Serenade, Berio’s Coro come to mind — as the composers’ choice of texts and the way their inner music becomes outwardly musicked evokes the poetic impulse on two levels. Rands’ cycle of three such works — sun, moon and eclipse — each involve a solo voice against an ensemble; each seems flung out into limitless, mysterious, resonant space.

Maybe the “sun” songs are the best of the set, although that could be only because I’ve heard them most recently — at last week’s Green Umbrella concert, in fact. The shivery opening owes something to Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloë sunrise, but the happenings in the lustrous, insinuating music are as widespread as the dozen or so poems that are its substance. Small glints of light seem to dance through the work, some from the 11-member instrumental ensemble, some from the solo singer, some from the ring of the poetry — Baudelaire, Montale, D.H. Lawrence, Dylan Thomas and more. These were elegantly sung by the indestructible Jonathan Mack, surrounded by audible sunshine from the players of USC’s Thornton Contemporary Music Ensemble led by Donald Crockett.

Music for an ensemble of eight cellos, and nothing more, may suggest an expanse of creaks and groans; works on this program by Kaija Saariaho and Augusta Read Thomas — both inspired by the look and feel of snow — delivered far more. Saariaho’s Neiges told of vast, fog-dappled snowscapes; the Blizzard in Paradise of Thomas (wife of Bernard Rands, if it matters) brought the weather somewhat closer, with gusts of stinging snow buffeting the hardy voyager. USC’s music department, apparently, abounds in fearless cellists.

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