Eugene Onegin


OneginPyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - Eugene Onegin

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich, 2012 | Pietari Inkinen, Krzysztof Warlikowski, Heike Grötzinger, Ekaterina Scherbachenko, Alisa Kolosova, Elena Zilio, Simon Keenlyside, Pavol Breslik, Ain Anger, Ulrich Reß | Live Internet Streaming, 25 March 2012

The manner in which elements of Eugene Onegin relate closely to the circumstances of Tchaikovsky’s own life have often been remarked upon, and it undoubtedly contributes to the deep emotional and romantic sweep of the opera, so it’s surprising that – to my knowledge at least – the unspoken subtext within the work hasn’t really been brought out explicitly before in any modern production.

That subtext is, of course, related to Tchaikovsky’s struggle with his homosexuality. At the same time that the composer was writing Eugene Onegin, he had himself started a correspondence with the patron of many of his works, Nadezhda von Meck, an intimate relationship that held a certain awkwardness since the two of them were reluctant to meet each other in person. In May 1877, Tchaikovsky also received a love letter from a pupil at the Moscow Conservatory, Antonina Milyukova. Believing that destiny was in some way playing a hand, and that marriage would help him deny his homosexuality, Tchaikovsky ill-advisedly married Milyukova in July 1877, and immediately regretted the decision. The marriage was a complete failure and led to a mental breakdown and attempted suicide on the part of the composer.

In the opera that Tchaikovsky was writing at the same time, Eugene Onegin, based on the verse novel by Alexander Pushkin, Onegin famously receives a gushing letter from a devoted admirer, Tatyana, a young, bookish, innocent, romantic girl living on a country estate who immediately falls in love with the handsome visitor introduced by their neighbour Lensky. Cruelly rejecting her declaration of love, Onegin claims that he’s not cut out for marriage, cannot bear the idea of being tied down when he is young and when there are so many other options to explore, certain that any marriage between them would inevitably become dull and routine.

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There would have undoubtedly been some identification on the part of Tchaikovsky with this situation, which certainly at least contributes to the lush romanticism of the score, so it’s not too much of a stretch to consider that Onegin may well have similarly rejected the young girl because he is gay and that, at the end when he comes to regret his callous dismissal of Tatyana after a life of empty and purposeless abandon, it’s possible to see something of the composer’s own dilemma, hoping unrealistically and impossibly for the security of a marriage relationship that would be more acceptable to society.

Actually, having made the parallel and having watched the Bavarian State Opera’s attempt to put something similar across on the stage, I can see why there’s a reluctance to characterise Eugene Onegin as a gay man. It takes some nerve to update a classic work in this way, altering the sexual orientation of the main character in one of the most romantic works ever written, no matter how closely it mirrors the actual real-life circumstances of the composer. As a subtext, it’s certainly something interesting to keep in mind, but it’s a bit more difficult to make it work convincingly on the stage. Accordingly, there’s a sense that while the director might like to make more of the idea, there’s undoubtedly a need to tread carefully with the material at the same time. So in some respects, while there is a feeling that there is some holding back from taking these ideas too far, even what there is here in Krzysztof Warlikowski’s production is more than controversial enough.

Rather delightfully, the production is set in the 1970s, a period that is by no means arbitrary, coinciding with the age of growing sexual expression and liberty where coming out was more acceptable in a way that Tchaikovsky – or indeed Onegin – could never have done in their day. I’m not sure that this would have been the case in Russia in the seventies, but (quite the opposite of the recent De Nederlandse production by Stefan Herheim) there’s nothing here in this production that is culturally specific to Russia. So while the first act is by no means anything like the Larina country estate, it at least looks like a fairly well-off family anywhere in Europe during the seventies. I say delightful, and that’s because it’s a loving recreation of the decade in terms of design and colour, with vinyl chairs, bell bottom trousers, coloured leather armchairs and moon landings on the TV, the stage animated by disco lights and dancing queens.

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It’s the idea of dancing queens however that is the most controversial aspect of Warlikowski’s production, which features Full Monty routines and shirtless males in cowboy hats and some even in bikinis, shuffling around through the famous Polonaise of the opera. I say shuffling, because it’s very tame stuff indeed, lacking the nerve and the verve to really make the production challenging, even if it is still more than enough to make traditional opera-goers very uncomfortable indeed. I don’t know what the Munich audience made of this or of Onegin’s kiss with his “close friend” Lensky, but I thought it was delicately handled within the context – the spat between the two men a rejection of Onegin’s advances, leading Lensky to throw down the challenge of a duel to defend his honour and reputation before a watching public.

If it wasn’t much to look at, and at times rather more static and all-purpose than one would like, the stage design suited the context setting well, looking most of the time like a 70s’ discotheque, but capable of being transformed reasonably effectively into a family living room or Tanya’s bedroom, allowing the first two acts to flow together without an interval. The duel between Onegin and Lensky takes place over a bed, which was something of a daring touch, but one that worked surprisingly well, principally due to the fine performances – in terms of both singing and acting – of Simon Keenlyside and Pavol Breslik. Keenlyside in particular carried the weight of Onegin’s inner struggle without appearing arrogant, adding to the tragedy of the outcome and his final breakdown. Ekaterina Scherbachenko perhaps didn’t carry the vocal strength or force of some of the best recent more mature Tatyanas (Renée Fleming, Krassimira Stoyanova), but she expressed the youthful innocence, confusion and mortification of her character much more convincingly, singing well and without mannerisms.

The idea of approaching Eugene Onegin from a gay perspective is a challenging one, as is setting it in the 1970s, and there were accordingly some inconsistencies in taking this approach and a static quality at times to the stage direction. The strength of the singing and dramatic performances however – notably from Keenlyside and Tatyana – and a good account of Tchaikovsky’s wonderful, heart-breaking score by the Bayerisches Staatsorchester under Pietari Inkinen, combined to brilliantly bring out the real strength of the work as well as the underlying subtext that undoubtedly contributes to its power and tragedy.

OneginPyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - Eugene Onegin

De Nederlandse Opera, Amsterdam, 2011 | Mariss Jansons, Stefan Herheim, Krassimira Stoyanova, Bo Skovhus, Mikhail Petrenko, Andrej Dunaev, Elena Maximova, Guy de Mey, Roger Smeets, Peter Arink, Richard Prada | Opus Arte

Tchaikovsky’s approach to opera is conventional in some aspects of its Romantic style, but there’s also a distinctive character to his music through its use of folk arrangements that are thoroughly linked to Russian character of those operatic subjects. The operas may seem designed to show off the range of the composer’s abilities, with dancing to mazurkas, polonaises and waltzes, with folk songs and extravagant choral and symphonic interludes, but they are all there just as much to explore fully the broad scope and colour of the Russian character itself. That’s evident as much in The Queen of Spades as in Cherevichki, but perhaps nowhere more effectively than in his most famous opera – and as far as I’m concerned his greatest opera – Eugene Onegin.

What’s most impressive about Eugene Onegin – both from Tchaikovsky’s viewpoint as well as its original author Pushkin’s – is how it manages to compact all those diverse, contradictory, deeply romantic and sometimes self-destructive features of the Russian character into what on the surface seems a simple romantic story of love and rejection. Within this however is the same nature of throwing of one’s self into the hands of fate that gives one of the most suicidal of gambling sports its name – Russian Roulette. It’s there in The Queen of Spades of course, in the belief that one’s life can change on the magical turn of a hand of cards, based on another Pushkin story, and it’s even there in the life of Pushkin himself, who reputedly fought twenty-nine duels and was finally killed in one at the age of 37. It’s there also in Tchaikovsky’s own life, the composer going through a personal crisis at the time of the opera with his homosexuality, yet entering into an ill-advised marriage on the basis that, as he wrote to a friend “No man can escape his destiny”. There are examples of this fatalistic character throughout Russian literature and opera, as in Prokofiev’s The Gambler (adapted from a work by Fyodor Dostoevsky), but it’s richly present throughout Eugene Onegin.

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It’s there in Act I, in Tatyana, a young girl living on a country estate who is introduced by her neighbour to the handsome figure of Eugene Onegin, when she all but swoons at his presence and immediately pours her heart out to him the same night in a deeply revealing letter where she opens her heart to him. It’s there also Act II, in Onegin’s callous disregard of her sensitivities and his determination to throw himself into life rather than settle down into a marriage that will become stale through habit. It’s there in that typically Russian custom of the duel when Lensky demands satisfaction for behaviour towards the young woman, and finally, and perhaps most powerfully in this work, it’s there in Act III when Onegin reencounters Tatyana and recognises the emptiness that he has pursued all his life and throws himself at her feet only to in turn be cruelly rejected.

It’s a relatively simple storyline, but it’s richly orchestrated by Tchaikovsky to capture all the nuances of the emotional content as well as the deeper cultural drives and impulses that lie beneath them. It’s full of passion and character so it’s surprising then how coldly and calculatingly the opera can often be put across. That will often depend on the interpretation of the conductor and stage director and on how much emphasis to give to Tchaikovsky’s score, but as far as this De Nederlandse production goes, with Mariss Jansons conducting and Stefan Herheim directing, it’s a passionate and expansive account of the opera, though one that many will inevitably feel takes too many liberties with the libretto.

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As far as the staging goes, the young Norwegian director does place the figures into somewhat irregular configurations. You’ll see that from the outset as Onegin walks onto the stage a scene before he should be formally introduced, looking thoroughly confused and walking moreover into what looks like a hotel lobby, with an elevator and a revolving door, where Tanya and her family are together. Similarly, there are few of the usual separations of characters in scenes that one would be accustomed to. Even when Tanya should be writing her famous love letter to the young man she has just been introduced to, it’s staged here with Onegin actually writing the letter, while her husband, Prince Gremin, lies in bed behind them. This could be thoroughly confusing for anyone who is unfamiliar with the opera, but it will not make a lot of sense to anyone who is familiar with the work and who would be quite happy to see it played out in the traditional linear manner.

The concept applied here, of course (although it might not be that obvious), is that the figures are reflecting back on the events from an older perspective, and the setting picks up on the mirroring of the situations. That’s most evident when Onegin directs his rejection of Tatyana to a silent younger girl in a white dress, while Krassimira Stoyanova, who actually sings the role of Tatyana, wearing a red dress (there may be some colour coding to reflect the differing perspectives) looks on as a spectator on her own past. Whether you consider that this distorts the intentions of Eugene Onegin or whether you feel that it opens it up underlying themes within the work will obviously depend on your taste, but the motivations of the director, inspired or misguided though they may be judged to be, are at least derived from a close attention paid to the work and a genuine attempt to understand it. Eugene Ongein is not a naturalistic work, and this production not only attempts to convey the poetic dream-like quality of the storyline with all its romanticised ideals and passions, but it also attempts to get beneath Tchaikovsky’s own personal relationship with the work and the expression of his own nature in the composition. That seems to me to be a worthwhile endeavour, but whether it’s judged as successful is evidently a matter for the individual listener/viewer.

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It does however add another level of complication to a work that is already enriched in emotions and in their peculiar Russian expression. In fact its attempt to bring this latter aspect to the fore to increasingly bizarre effect in Act II and Act III might be taking on rather too much and pushing an already quite eccentric production – such as the unusual touches applied to the M. Triquet scene and Onegin’s second at the duel actually being a bottle of wine – a little too far. Act III’s Polonaise attempts to bring in an historical tableau vivant of all walks of Russian life, with a dancing bear, Cosmonauts, Russian gymnasts, Swan Lake dancers, royalty and religious leaders, Red Army troops and sailors, folk dancers, serfs and Prince Gremin heading up a Russian mafia outfit, and if all that sounds like it has nothing to do with Eugene Onegin, you’d be entitled to think so and decide that this is not a production for you, but at the same time it can be seen as historically being a part of everything Russian that is enshrined within the essence of Pushkin and Tchaikovsky’s work.

What I think is beyond question however is that Jansons and Herheim bring out the full latent potential of Eugene Onegin here, without restraint, but also without over-emphasis. Regardless of whether the concept makes rational sense or appeals to personal taste, this is a passionate and moving account of the work on a musical and a dramatic level. The singing is also exceptionally good here. You might like a younger person singing Tatyana, but a younger singer couldn’t sing this role half as well. It needs a mature voice, and Krassimira Stoyanova‘s is wonderfully toned, controlled with impeccable technique and emotionally expressive. Bo Skovhus brings a great intensity also to this Onegin who is tortured by his nature of being Russian. He’s not the strongest voice in the role, but he sings it well. Mikhail Petrenko’s Prince Gremin and Andrej Dunaev’s Lensky are also worthy of the production. The very fine team of the Chorus of the De Nederlandse opera provide their usual sterling work.

Blu-ray specifications are all in order. The video quality is good, the picture clear, even though it is often dark on the stage and there are some slight fluctuations in brightness adjustment. The PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 audio tracks are strong and impressive, with a wonderful tone. Extras on the disc include a Cast Gallery and a 30 minute documentary feature where the director explains – not always convincingly and certainly always clearly to conductor Jansons – his thought-process for the work, with backstage interviews, rehearsals and a look at the costume designs. The booklet contains an essay examining the work and the production and includes a synopsis. The disc is BD50, 16:9, 1080i full HD. Subtitles are in English, French, German, Spanish, Italian and Dutch.

OneginPyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - Eugene Onegin

Metropolitan Opera, 2007 | Valery Gergiev, Robert Carsen, Renée Fleming, Ramón Vargas, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Elana Zaremba | Decca (Universal Classics)

Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin is as Russian as they come - from an impeccable literary source (Pushkin), filled with all the classic situations of fatalistic romances, fabulous balls and a duel over a question of honour. The Met’s 2007 production, recorded for their HD-Live series, retains a strong underpinning in the casting and the sensitive conducting of the opera by Valery Gergiev that brings these elements brilliantly to the fore.

Perfectly in line with Tchaikovsky’s original intentions, Robert Carsen’s staging is straightforward and simple, the set uncluttered, with only the bare minimum of props required for the settings, while the all-important tone - primarily an emotional one - is set by the lighting and colouration of the stark backgrounds that tower over and enclose the performers. It gives the opera a truly unique feel, one that is perfectly in tune with the emotional chords struck by the music and the libretto, a tone that is dominated by the interpretation of Onegin here - cold, austere and aloof, calculating even, certainly with a touch of arrogance, but carrying within himself his own torments, distancing himself from others in a remote and self-involved manner that doesn’t take anyone else’s feelings into account.

It’s remarkable then how this chimes with Tchaikovsky’s own personal circumstances at the time, unable to bear the gossip surrounding him over his sexuality, entering unadvisedly into a marriage for convenience where he is unable to offer anything more than “brotherly love”. Accordingly the music in Eugene Onegin is often as heartfelt and emotional as anything Tchaikovsky has composed, but with that customary detached, intellectualised translation of it into pure, precise musical terms. Consequently, it’s utterly gripping when converted into the drama of Onegin, involving the heart as much as the mind.

One couldn’t ask for anything more out of the performers - the starkness of the sets allowing the audience to focus solely on the singing without distractions while the lighting supports the emotions and motivations lying behind them. The singers meet the demands of the roles and the action admirably, Dmitri Hrovostovsky indeed presenting a fine cold, aloof figure in Onegin, contrasted with the fiery passions of Ramón Vargas’s Lenski and the romantic purity of Renée Fleming’s Tatiana.

On Blu-ray, the staging looks magnificent in its colouration and tones. The audio is generally fine, but there are a few issues with microphone placements that don’t give adequate presence to the voices, neither in the LPCM 2.0 or the DTS HD Master Audio 5.1, though this is only an occasional issue particularly in the first act of the opera. A 16-minute Behind the Scenes featurette presents an interesting look at the rehearsals for the opera. Overall, this is a strong presentation of a magnificent performance of a wonderful opera.