Rose, Peter


Eugene Onegin

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - Eugene Onegin

Royal Opera House, 2013 | Robin Ticciati, Kasper Holten, Simon Keenlyside, Krassimira Stoyanova, Pavol Breslik, Elena Maximova, Peter Rose, Diana Montague, Vigdis Hentze Olsen, Kathleen Wilkinson Elliot Goldie, Thom Rackett, Christophe Mortagne, Michel De Souza, Jihoon Kim, Luke Price | Royal Opera House Cinema Season Live, 20th February 2013

The very nature of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin is one that often makes it difficult to cast and present. The opera is all about the arrogance, impetuosity and naivety of youth seen refracted through a lifetime of regret. As such, it has the near impossible task of needing its performers to be able to express both youthful idealism and the regret that comes with experience through same person and - just to make it more difficult - express both positions almost simultaneously. Tchaikovsky’s remarkable highly romantic musical score is able to do that, but finding singers who have the exact balance of youth and experience needed to express and actually sing the challenging roles is rather more difficult to achieve.

If it were a film, it would simply be a matter of just casting younger actors to play the youthful roles in Eugene Onegin and then bring in experienced stars to play their older counterparts. In the opera house it’s not possible - or at least not common - to cast in this way, and certainly not for roles like those in Eugene Onegin that have very specific singing and continuity demands. Certainly in the case of the young romantic and bookish 16-year old Tatyana, the director has the choice only of casting a younger singer who looks credible in the role but who may not be able to meet the extremely difficult singing demands, or else sacrifice credibility for a singer with the voice, maturity and the experience to make it work musically. In the days of High Definition broadcasts, the chances are that the director will opt for the former (as in the case of Kyzysztof Warlikowski’s 2012 Bavarian State Opera production with Ekaterina Scherbachenko), when the latter is what the work really needs. There is however another way, a way explored by Norwegian director Stefan Herheim for example in the 2011 production for De Nederlandse Opera, but it involves the kind of directorial playing around with the essential elements and timeline of the work that some find intrusive in what ought to be a stripped-back and intimate work.

Directing the Royal Opera House’s new production, and clearly focussing on those essential themes of love and regret, Kasper Holten has opted for an approach similar to Stefan Herheim, using doubles for Onegin and Tatyana - dancers who enact their younger selves - and having them both on the stage together in order to allow both those interlocking sentiments to play out simultaneously. As a response to the themes and the actual music itself it’s a valid idea, but it’s one that is rather more difficult to pull off theatrically. Holten’s direction, it has to be said, is rather less convoluted than Herheim’s all-encompassing approach that takes in aspects of the Russian temperament revealed in the work across the ages, and in that respect the Royal Opera House production works quite well while at the same time being relatively more faithful to the intentions of the composer. One can’t help but wishing however that the director (both Herheim and Holten) would just put their trust in the singer when they a Tatyana as accomplished as Krassimira Stoyanova who is capable of delivering such a sensitive and deeply nuanced performance as she does here.

And not just Stoyanova. The Royal Opera House’s production benefitted from the casting and terrific performances of Simon Keenlyside and Pavol Breslik as Onegin and Lensky. Both played these roles opposite each other in last year’s Bayerische Staatsoper production and were marvellous there. Here, unconstrained by the Kyzysztof Warlikowski’s attempts to bring out a gay subtext in their relationship (attempts it has to be said that were largely successful and certainly relevant to the composer’s own personal circumstances), they were free to concentrate on those expressions of deep emotional wounding and eternal regret. The title of the interval feature ‘Love and Regret‘ describes Kasper Holten’s focus for this production, and he couldn’t have been better assisted in getting this across than the exceptional, nuanced and deeply moving performances from the cast or from the superb account of Tchaikovsky’s majestic score from the Royal Opera House orchestra superbly conducted by Robin Ticciati.

A performance of Eugene Onegin perhaps doesn’t need anything more than that, but there were more than a few other beautiful little touches that validated the director’s approach. When you see the youthful idealism and romanticism embodied in the expressions and the fluid movements of dancer Vigdis Hentze Olsen during Stoyanova’s moving account of the letter scene - the older Tatyana regretful of her younger counterpart’s painful naivety - it does actually enhance the scene and reflect those simultaneous contradictory sentiments. Keenlyside is a marvellous actor as well as a fine singer in this role, but the look of nervous excitement on the young Onegin (Thom Rackett) as he picks up a duelling pistol, oblivious to the reality of what he is about to do, while the older Onegin looks on with painful regret, unable to avert the disaster, is also justified and well handled. The death of Lensky, leaving Pavol Breslik lying there at the front of the stage through the remainder of the opera, doesn’t work quite so well. The dead branch that he symbolically drags onto the stage would have been enough on its own.

Any such reservations however are few and minor when taken alongside the evident consideration behind the directorial choices elsewhere in this Eugene Onegin. The Polonaise was more than just a beautiful interlude, but threw Keenlyside’s Onegin with abandon into the midst of swirling ballet dancers that he would attempt to grasp but be unable to hold. Tainted by his past and his behaviour, it seemed like everything he touched would just die in his hands. Mia Stensgaard’s set - a framing set of doors, opened or closed as necessary, with suitable backgrounds and lighting - was also highly effective in establishing a consistent look and feel for the work. The role of the chorus - again often neglected for their dramatic contribution in favour of providing “folk” colour - were recognised here as being the social context of the work. The Royal Opera House have been criticised, with some justification, for a lack of adventure in their recent programming of revivals and some partially failed or misguided experiments (Rusalka, Robert le Diable), but when they bring together a strong cast for a thoughtful account of a major work like the 2011 Tosca or this year’s Eugene Onegin, they are simply unbeatable.

CapriccioRichard Strauss - Capriccio

The Metropolitan Opera, New York | Andrew Davis, John Cox, Renée Fleming, Sarah Connolly, Joseph Kaiser, Russell Braun, Morten Frank Larsen, Peter Rose | The Met: Live in HD - April 23, 2011

In a short pre-performance interview before the Live in HD performance of Strauss’ final opera Capriccio, Renée Fleming spoke about the role of the Countess in the opera and, with no false modesty – although she would of course be the star of the piece – said that she considered the opera a true ensemble piece. This is true in more than one sense, for while there are equal roles for the other performers in Capriccio, the Countess no more prominent than any of them, opera itself is, by definition, an ensemble piece, and as an opera about opera, Capriccio really ought to be nothing else.

In that respect at least, Capriccio is a masterfully constructed opera, but you would expect nothing less from Richard Strauss, whose approach to opera I personally find sometimes a little more frustratingly intellectualised than truly emotional or from the heart. Even at his most emotionally intense, in the deep discordant personal trauma of Elektra, every single emotion seems to be dissected and analysed, every note perfectly attuned to the resonance of the mental state of its characters, leaving little room for interpretation or genuine feeling to come through. Strauss’ other most famous operas co-written with librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Der Rosenkavalier and Ariadne auf Naxos, similarly demonstrate the composer’s ability to portray more than feel character behaviour, each of those operas self-reflexively really saying more about opera and the role of characters in an opera than anything meaningful about life and reality. Well, almost. What redeems all those operas are the little moments of heartfelt truths that are reached and expressed, principally, though the music itself.

One would not expect there to be a great deal of the warmth of life to be found in Capriccio, since the opera is indeed another of Richard Strauss’ intellectual exercises, the entire opera nothing more than a drawing room conversation between rich artists and intellectuals in an elegant Parisian chateau who talk endlessly about one subject; which is more important – words or music? The question comes up between the composer Flamand and the poet Olivier, two guests at the birthday party of a widowed Countess Madeleine at her chateau. Each hoping to win the favour of the Countess, they seek to impress her with their arguments and force her to choose between them, but Madeleine is not swayed, recognising the beauty in both, particularly when they are brought together, each enhancing the other. The theatre director La Roche says that neither of them would have any value were it not for the director to interpret and stage the works, which leads the conversation onto the value of opera, and eventually the Count, the brother of Madeleine, suggests that they should all work together on an opera, the subject of which should be the events of that very evening and the conversation they have all had together.

Capriccio

That sounds like a fairly fruitless exercise on the part of Strauss, writing an opera that is about writing an opera about writing an opera – to say nothing about it having a distinct air of triviality for the time it was written, in Germany in 1942 during the Third Reich – but, perhaps unsurprisingly, the qualities of Capriccio are, well, in the opera itself. As Renée Fleming noted, it’s an ensemble piece, and since each of the main characters are practically personifications of Music, Poetry and Drama, it’s the ensemble that is important in a work of opera. The role of the Countess may not seem to be as important as those other elements in the scheme of the composing of an opera – even Monsieur Taupe, the prompter has an important role to play – but she has perhaps the most vital role of all. What that role is isn’t exactly defined and it’s left for the listener to determine what that magic element is, but she could be, in hard-edged practical terms, the financer, or, more mystically, she is in some ways the inspiration, or even the harmony that brings them both together. She is also the audience, on whose reception, personal interpretation and personal identification the success of the drawing together of the various elements counts most. It’s not by chance then that the ending of the opera (and on a notionally dramatic level, her choice of the two suitors), which is left for the Countess to decide, is left open. The ultimate meaning and value of an opera lies with the listener.

It’s appropriate then that the weight of the argument is perfectly balanced on all sides, and this is where the brilliance of Capriccio lies. It opens with a string sextet – the music that is being played for the Countess – and it even stops the music to allow words to be spoken. Each of the characters then has their role, their chance to impress, expressed through the voice and in the words of the singers. Strauss even introduces an actor, Italian opera singers and a ballet sequence – all vital components that may go into an opera, particularly in the ideal of opera (considered to be Gluck here, as elsewhere), and each of them individually show their worth in Strauss’ beautiful flowing compositions. The Met’s production, a single act opera in a period room, itself demonstrates the value of staging, and it’s perfect. But in order for the opera to be more than the sum of its parts, it needs more than just the ensemble bringing them all together. It needs the Countess. It needs the magic. It needs that receptive audience. To be specific, it needs Renée Fleming. And this is the genius of Strauss’ work in Capriccio, in that he knows that the opera work is not complete, is never static – it’s alive. It’s as if Strauss had composed the opera for Renée Fleming, for a singer who in those final moments can bring something unique and special to that vital closing aria where she reaches out to the audience and communicates something ineffable, meaningful and personal. It’s a blissful moment that opens up everything that opera is and should be about.