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.

Onegin

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.