The Nederlandse Opera’s new production of Tchaikovsky’s Evgeny Onegin cannot help being a must-see: it features only Mariss Jansons and the Concertgebouw Orchestra in the pit and the controversial Stefan Herheim as stage director. Before I write further, I will say straightaway that it is worthwhile the trip.
Although I was disappointed to see Herheim repeating his historic approach as in his Bayreuth Parsifal (it would be sad if he, of all people, turns out to be predictable), the formula does work. Onegin is a man in search of identity – and Russia has faced a similar problem as a nation. When we first meet both in this staging, the shadow of the Romantic world still haunts them. Revolution makes its appearance with the end of innocence, when Lensky challenges Onegin to a duel before revolutionary soldiers. The ball in Moscow is a parade of Sovietic icons – ballet dancers, athletes, astronauts – a collective self-affirmation that does not provide answers to Onegin’s individual questions. In this ball, Tatiana and Gremin are just idealized visions. Their real appearance, in Putin’s Russia, finally proves to be more violent in their new money/old habits-milieu. Even if you disagree with the analogy, Pushkin’s storyline is given an interesting twist when told in flashback. Onegin is in a kitsch-glamour hall when he sees Tatiana as a socialite. Suddenly, the glass-and-metal room centerstage becomes Larina’s house by virtue of a revolving structure. Past and present intertwine: Tatiana and Onegin write their letters simultaneously while Gremin sleeps in his bed. Sets and costumes are ingeniously and beautifully conceived (I only dislike the cheap computer-made projections – and maybe the guy in a bear costume borrowed from Herheim’s Lohengrin at the Lindenoper) and make the complex shiftings in time and in scope (social/private) coherent.
Mariss Jansons offers a subtle and elegant view of the score. It does not sound typically “Russian” in its transparent textures, clear strings and avoidance of emotionalism, but is somehow faithful to the melancholic atmosphere of the work. His sense of balance between stage and pit is exemplary, not to mention his ability to increase volume without saturating the aural picture with excessive loudness.
Crowning the performance, Krassimira Stoyanova’s immaculate Tatiana. The voice is exquisite and expressive, the technique is solid and she inhabits the role musically and scenically. Elena Maximova too has the perfect voice and attitude for Olga, but her sense of pitch leaves something to be desired. Olga Savova and Nina Romanova are ideally cast as Larina’s and Filipevna. Andrei Dunaev is a reliable Lenski – the voice is spontaneous, but his big aria was not really thrilling (or maybe I’ve been spoiled by Piotr Beczala in New York and Rolando Villazón in Berlin). Mikhail Petrenko offered a sensitive account of his aria – a little bit more body in his high register would have been helpful. As for Boje Skovhus, although he sang better than in Berlin in 2009, his pleasant and well-focused baritone still lacks some depth in this role, but the truth is his overacting is always hard to overlook – even when relatively tamed by a strong-handed director
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Die Zeit, sie ist ein sonderbag Ding… Hugo von Hofmannsthal was not wrong about that, but since his days Vienna has lost a bit the touch in what regards timing, particularly when the matter is Falk Richter’s production of Tchaikovsky’s Evgeny Onegin’s for the Wiener Staatsoper. In his interview, Richter says his production is zeitlos, but I have the impression he should have checked the word in the dictionary before this statement. “Atemporal” means something that is connected to no particular time, while this staging makes references to different moments in time – from the 60’s to the present days – without any coherence or any discernable reason for that. Tatjana, Larina, Filipyevna and Lensky (in spite of a very modern-style outfit) seem characters from Elia Kazan’s Splendor in the grass, while Onegin, Olga and the guests in Tatjana’s birthday could have appeared in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises – the peasants in act I remain quite Sovietic themselves though – and Monsieur Triquet’s old-style couplets make no sense in the videoclip approach. To make things worse, characters behaved in a nonsensical way – Tatjana too grown-up for her “last-virgin-in-town”-attitude, not to mention that the vamp-looking Olga seemed quite mentally-challenged hopping around Lensky in girly (?) enthusiasm.
Kirill Petrenko’s conducting suggested agitation rather than intensity – the house orchestra’s beautifully transparent sonorities particularly different from the dense strings usually associated to Russian music. While the multicoloured impression is quite welcome, I am not sure if I prefer the zipping pace to the full bloom of a rich orchestral sound. In any case, the febrility worked really well for the closing scene, when both soloists responded accordingly in engagement and slancio. Although Olga Guryakova’s soprano has more than a splash of edginess and tends to the emphatic and unflowing when things get high and fast, it has an aptly youthful sound and, when you least expect, flashes up in some forceful acuti. Vocal aspects aside, Guryakova’s Tatjana is the work of a true artist. Every inflection, every gesture, every look has meaning and speaks directly to the heart. In that sense, it is the opposite of the leading baritone’s performance, since Dmitri Hvorostovsky seemed to be posing for publicitary photos during the whole evening. There were moments when I feared he would wink and wave to the audience. Fortunately, the voice was in very good shape and creates in its rich, velvety tonal quality the right impression of attractiveness and impetuosity. Pavol Breslik was a sensitive if small-scaled Lensky and Nadia Krasteva was a reliable if unexceptional Olga, but the audience’s favourite clearly was Ferruccio Furlanetto, whose dark, spacious and expressive bass filled the hall in a noble account of his aria. Both Zoryana Kushpler and Margaret Hintermeier deserve mention for their convincing accounts of the small roles of Larina and Filipyevna.
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Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin is considered an opera in which very little happens and that is true if one limits his or her observation to actions. When it comes to feelings, the whole spectre of sentiments is generously poured on stage. It is a very emotional score – and conductor Andris Nelsons decided to spare nothing: the orchestra played with real passion, an extremely supple use of dynamics and tempi guaranteed that the last ounce of expression were extracted, sometimes to frantic effects. The word “blandness” would never occur to anyone in the theatre, but I wish that passion were achieved with a bit more polish for the musicians on stage. Although the orchestra achived a remarklable degree of intensity, that rarely tampered with precision. Unfortunately, the chorus did not often seem to follow the same beat from the orchesta and ensembles with soloists were poorly balanced. I have Jiri Belohlavek’s performance at the Metropolitan Opera House fresh in my ears and the Straussian grace with which the Czech conductor made his distinguished cast (Mattila, Semenchuk, Beczala and Hampson) blend their voices was truly admirable in comparison.
Olga Guryakova was an engaged and touching Tatjana – her basic tonal quality has the necessary young-sounding tonal sheen, but a sour edge to her tone spoils part of the fun, especially when she is hard pressed in more dramatic moments. As Olga, Ewa Wolak’s contralto seemed too dark in a cast where the contralto parts were taken by higher voices: the veteran Karan Armstrong (Larina)’s still bright-toned considering her age and easy on the passaggio and Lieane Keegan (Filipjevna). In any case, Wolak has an impressively deep low register. Andrej Dunaev’s tenor is pleasant all the way. His top notes lack a brighter edge and he sometimes disappeared in ensembles, but, with the help of the conductor’s attentive accompaniment, he gave a sensitive account of his big aria. At first, I found Boje Skovhus’s Onegin a bit hectoring and uncharming, but it soon became clear that this was a theatrical effect. Later in the Moscow act, his singing was exemplary in its clarity, beauty of tone and forcefulness. In comparison with the impressive cast offered by the Met this year, I would say I prefer his performance to Thomas Hampson’s, who was caught a bit short by the more dramatic passages. As for Paata Burchuladze’s Gremin, his voice is powerful as always, but I could never warm to his unclear diction and suspect sense of pitch.
Götz Friedrich’s production, which premièred the opera at the Deutsche Oper in 1996 has its moments of cold aestheticism in its light colours and geometrical cleanliness, but some moments are particular effective, such as the duel between Onegin and Lensky. What is beyond doubt is that the recreation of this production was extremely attentive to stage direction. All singers and choristers acted with conviction – Guryakova and Wolak were particularly believable. Skovhus tends to be overemphatic, but Onegin is everything but a spontaneous fellow anyway.
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The Metropolitan Opera House has been more faithful to Russian opera than many important opera houses around the world outside Russia. Many Russian singers have achieved international fame at the Met – and the New York audience is quite keen on this repertoire. That said, Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Oneguin is not necessarily a work in need of advocacy – it is probably the best known Russian opera in the West and the Met accordingly gave it well-loved singers.
Robert Carsen’s production has seen some glamourous casting – it has been featured on DVD with Renée Fleming and Dmitri Hvorostovsky in leading roles – but it is not in itself a glamourous production. On the contrary, it is simplicity itself. The bare white stage receives props for each scene and colour is largely provided by Michael Levine’s beautiful costumes. In the countryside scenes, the use of autumn leaves is poetic and creates the necessary atmosphere, but the Moscow scenes just needed something. As it is, the audience has the impression of watching a rehearsal.
If I had to mention the reason for this Onegin’s sucess, I would mention Jiri Belohlavek’s conducting. To start with, the Met’s orchestra seemed transfigured – offering voluminous, rich and warm sounds throughout. Belohlavek’s noble, pensive approach fits the work melancholy – some may say that he drained a bit of the Russian-ness of the score, but I considered the gain in expressive, almost Straussian atmosphere most welcome.
Karita Mattila’s soprano is more smoky and less impetuous in both ends that it used to be – but the sound is irresistibly warm and creamy. She soared in ensembles and fulfilled her solos with immense depth of feeling. Her stage portrayal, from shy teenager to socialite, was expertly produced. Ekaterina Semenchuk’s solid mezzo soprano made Olga a bit more substantial than we are used to see. Although Thomas Hampson was a bit fazed by Act III demands, his was an intelligent and elegantly sung performance. However, Piotr Beczala will remain the audience’ s favourite member in the cast. He sung with beauty of tone, sensitivity and good taste – Nicolai Gedda is the name that came to my mind. And this is a high compliment.
Among the minor roles, Wendy White deserves praise for a smoothly sung Madame Larina and Barbara Dever was a touching Filippyevna. James Morris, on the other hand, was a bit rusty as Prince Gremin – and the role ideally requires a darker and deeper voice.
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