Tschaikowsky, Yevgeny Onyegin

Back to the Staatsoper for the third time in a week, this time for Tschaikowsky’s Yevgeny Onyegin, with a superb cast headlined by Dmitri Hvorostovsky in the title role and Anna Netrebko as Tatyana, and Andris Nelsons conducting.  From the way it sounded, this cast certainly knew its way around the parts, and all of the singers commanded their roles.

Nelsons kept the orchestra tense, as it should be for such a psychodrama.  His pacing, tone, and emphasis were all exemplary.  Hvorostovsky’s voice cut through the air, slightly bitter (although I have long admired his voice since I first saw a broadcast of the Cardiff competition in 1989, this was surprisingly the first time I have heard him live, and he sounds exactly as he does in his recordings).  Netrebko pulled off a stunning mezza voce in the letter scene, sung partly on her back, which wafted through the House with practically the same fullness as her normal singing voice.  She was certainly on top of her game tonight, although not as young-looking as she once was (happens to all of us).  The young and dashing Dmitry Korchak as Lensky had a wonderful tenor, most strident when he told Onyegin they were no longer friends and most melancholic when he reflected on his life in Act Two before Onyegin killed him.  Alisa Kolosova portrayed a full but tender Olga.

The problem came with the Regisseur, yet another useless German import, Falk Richter.  Why no director from (or trained in) Germany seems capable of producing intelligent stagings in the last half century continues to bewilder me.  This staging was, at least, not offensive and not shocking (making it a big improvement over most of the nonsense coming from German opera directors).  However, I could not understand the point. The program booklet contained a long interview with Richter, but even in that forum he proved unable to explain anything coherently.

I have seen this opera twice in Moscow with minimal sets (at the Stanislavsky Opera in 2009 and at the Vishnyevskaya Opera Center in 2011), so a grand staging is not necessary if it remains sensible and allows the singers to emphasize the drama.

But tonight’s minimal stage provided just enough of a set to distract from the drama.  The chorus and ballet corps either stood around like blobs doing nothing when they should have been doing something or they pranced around like circus clowns (either way they made a distraction); snow fell constantly throughout most scenes (including one scene indoors); Tatyana appeared to go sleep in a cut-out igloo; the second act ball scene contained an ice bar literally crawling with lobsters; the third act ball appeared to take place in a tacky and tasteless ultra-modern shiny-black hangout for oligarchs that I tried to avoid when I lived in Moscow, hosted by a too-young Prince Gremin – presumably the oligarch-in-chief – in his diamond-encrusted tails.  Costumes were contemporary to today.

At no time did the staging either seek to draw out the drama (contained in the words and music, not the action, as typical in Tschaikowsky operas), nor even simply minimize itself to allow the cast to do this on their own.  I suppose the staging not only distracted me, but also must have distracted the cast.  So while they all sang wonderfully, it sounded like they were simply going through the roles from their staple repertory.  Since they have likely performed these roles together before, they managed some personal interaction, but on the whole it was a rote performance devoid of any coherent concept.  By process of elimination, if the problem was not the orchestra, the conductor, or the cast, then it must be the director.

For a simple staging, the scenes also came far too disjointed.  Every scene brought a scrim down, followed by silence as the orchestra had to wait (why?  the sets were so simple they could have been rotated or changed quickly).  The only intermission came two and a quarter hours into the opera – between the second and third acts – with only forty-five minutes to go once the opera resumed. For an opera with no action, that had the audience squirming.  If they needed (or just wanted) to pause for long scene changes anyway, breaking up any continuity, they should have had at least two intermissions.

As a final quibble, the scrim often had Russian written on it: either just the exclamation “Onyegin!” or the text of Tatyana’s letter to Yevgeny.  The problem was that it was written in the Cyrillic alphabet according to today’s spellings, and not the correct pre-Soviet spellings used by Tschaikowsky and Pushkin (for example, the original second vowel in Onyegin was abolished by the Soviets). So these Russian scribbles were simply contextually incorrect.  Falk Richter is an idiot.

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