There have been so many words written about Krzysztof Warlikowski’s 2007 production of Tchaikovsky’s Evgeny Onegin for the Bavarian State Opera that I wonder if there is anything left to say. In any case, the production has been nicknamed “Brokeback Onegin”, and there is no ill will in the joke: the director does acknowledge the reference, not only to Ang Lee’s movie, but also to David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. I would add something of Elias Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass in the way the young Tatyana is portrayed (and I guess that a reference to Natalia Zakharenko – a.k.a. Natalie Wood – is not out of place here). The cinematographic references are hardly what the nay-sayers complained about – but the fact that the fact that Tchaikovsky’s own homosexuality here stands for the reason why shirtless cowboys do everything but lap-dance Onegin just after he has killed Lensky. On choosing this wording, I mean that many of those who dislike the production probably do not find problem in suggestion that there is more than friendship in the feeling between the two leading male characters in the plot. Even if Pushkin did not envisage that, this perspective is compatible with a plot in which the young poet rages and – most puzzlingly – vilifies his adored Olga without much reason while Onegin accepts the provocation that leads him to kill his only friend instead of acting with the kind of condescension typical of his haughty personality (as we have seen in his reaction to Tatyana’s letter). I even believe that the staging has grounds to put the matter in a more than “Platonic” way; the part I don’t go along with is the premise that both Pushkin and Tchaikovsky could have done better, that they got the second act all wrong and that the third act is a mistake that had to be corrected. I am sorry, but the only misjudged thing in Pushkin’s life was the duel – the real-life one that got him killed way too young. Tatyana’s refusal of Onegin is the culminating scene of the book and the opera – and the Lensky/Olga situation is the main step that took them to that point. I am not a cynical person – call me silly if you want – but I appreciate Tatyana’s decision to be faithful to herself and what she stands for (even if one does not share her beliefs). And I say all this having found the cavorting cowboys far less camp than the ballet numbers usually seen in the third act.
I always say that Onegin is the opera I’ve been most often lucky with: last time I saw it Mariss Jansons was conducting the Concertgebouw. My very high records with it made me difficult to feel happy about Leo Hussain’s conducting this evening. By saying this I do not mean it was bad, but rather that it did not bring me any satisfaction. It lacked the fundamental sense of sustained and increasing tension, some of Tchaikovsky’s famous emotional passages were played without any conviction, the orchestral sound lacked warmth and apparently the chorus could not really understand the conductor’s beat. I also have the impression – especially in the girls/boys quartet in act I – that soloists were basically doing their thing. I will never forget the exemplary sense of control and demi tintes that Jiri Belohlavek achieved at the Met with Mattila, Semenchuk, Bechala and Hampson – and what I heard today it miles away from that experience. And one cannot fault his cast.
This is the first time I see Anna Netrebko in a Russian opera and it seems that it is true that one has always an extra sparkle in the repertoire of his or her own country. She sang with extraordinary richness of tone in her whole range, tackled the exposed high notes roundly and without hesitation and gave a lesson in how to tell apart act I Tatyana and act III Tatyana just by the sound of her voice. The Letter Scene – where a most compelling conductor would have done all the difference in the world – she could find unusual alertness to the changes of mood (and there are many). Brava. It was more than a lucky coincidence that she could find a top-notch Olga in Alisa Kolosova, the best I have seen live, her mezzo ideally young-sounding with judiciously used reserves of depth in her low notes. Also, she knows exactly what kind of woman her character is. Brava anche lei. Since I last saw him, Pavol Breslik has grown immensely in the role of Lensky. It is still a light voice for the part, but the lightness is now used entirely in his favor, in phrasing of Mozartian poise and ductility, not to mention that he has developed in strength to deal with the most outspoken passages.
There is much to admire in Mariusz Kwiecien’s Onegin – he sings with sense of style, an unmistakably baritonal sound and commitment. He does seem a little tired in the last scene, but so are most singers in this part. And yet I missed the sheer chic a great Onegin exudes in acts I and II and the truly spiritual exhaustion in act III. The intent to portray this is there, but I have the impression that a voice of more depth and weight is required to fully accomplish that. Günther Groissböck, on the other hand, has the voice for Prince Gremin, but his aria was sung too objectively, the mellifluous legato a Russian bass would never fail to employ there largely missing.