Monday, 14 November 2011

Applauding the Scenery - Eugene Onegin, ENO

When audiences applaud the scenery, it's a bad sign. This ENO Eugene Onegin at the Coliseum is visually stunning. Everything glitters. Polished mirror surfaces, luscious costumes. It's like being in a fashion shoot for a glamour magazine, circa 1955. You gasp at the maximalist opulence. But when Onegin cries out "Oh, the tedium", he strikes an emotional chord.

Onegin's outburst comes during the ball at St Petersburg. The staging  is spectacular, with columns towering over the stage, lit to resemble gold and marble. It's glorious. So why isn't Onegin impressed? If Deborah Warner had asked that question, this production might have come to life. Socially, Onegin's better connected than the Larin family, and much loved. Tatyana's only the latest in a long line of admirers, of all kinds. But he chooses deliberately to be an outsider. Tatyana lives in book-filled fantasy, unlike her nurse for whom love is an irrelevant concept. She falls for him because he's dangerous. Writing that letter was traumatic, because it was  shockingly, unlady-like by the conventions of the time.  Yet Onegin doesn't  reject her as a person, but because he's not into the status games that marriage entails.  What is he really after?  Is he a symbol of the artistic soul?

Psychologically, there are many levels in this opera, but this production is more concerned with surface appearances. The First Act misses altogether the clues to Tatyana's fertile imagination that the garden represents. Maybe this set portrays her mind, but it's a shambles, and there's nothing else to support that take on Tatyana's personality. It's a pity as this act should establish why Onegin cares about Tatyana. Like the garden, she stands for the fertility of Russian tradition. Purity, not ostentation. (for more explanation, please see the comments below)  But we get the trademark Warner busy crowd, where supernumeraries wander about contributing nothing but attention deficit. At least when the crowd are dancing, they serve a purpose.

The visual glory of this production will make it it a huge success, particularly for audiences who like the very trappings of status Onegin so clearly rejects. (For more on Met values please see here).  On one level, the opera supports a regressive interpretation, since Onegin realizes how empty his life is without love. Tatyana sticks with her husband, apparently choosing status over all else. But I've often wondered what the next act might have been. Quite possibly, Pushkin and Tchaikovsky had ideas on the resolution, but in Tsarist times, the message might have had them banned. So perhaps Warner's retreat into appearances has a point, since even now, it isn't safe to think of Onegin questioning social mores.

Performances supported this approach to the opera. Extremely creditable singing and playing, but without the fire which might come from direction that engaged with the drama. Amanda Echalaz has a lovely voice, and sings clearly, but the part isn't developed. Is Tatyana sexual, or a fantasist, or wild, or at heart a domesticated conformist like her sister? Similarly Audun Iversen as Onegin sings correctly, but isn't expected to portray the darker aspects of Onegin's personality. Toby Spence's Vladimir Lensky comes over impressively partly because the role is less complex. Even then, one might ask, why is he so irrationally jealous? A production that focussed on the Onegin/Lensky relationship might be perceptive.  Let's not forget how Pushkin died, and Tchaikovsky's sexuality. That's why the duel scene is crucial to the whole interpretation.  The text stresses how important it is to follow rules. "A man is about to die". Yet there's no tension on this stage. Spence is directed to stand still long enough for Iverson to take aim and fire. As my companion said, duels were fought with pistols, not rifles, which handle too clumsily. Is the production implying that Lensky has a death wish? Lensky, who plays by the rules of society, gets killed. Onegin who plays by the rules of the duel, has to flee.

Extremely good performances in the minor roles. Catherine Wyn-Rogers' Filippyevna, for example, singing well and acting by instinct. Adrian Thompson, David Stout and Brindley Sherratt as Triquet, Zaretsky and Prince Gremin respectively, making their parts more than vignettes. Edward Gardner's conducting, however, was more in line with Warner's glossy surfaces. The orchestra played correctly, even elegantly, but the pungent Slavic soul in this music was smoothed over.  This Tchaikovsky Eugene Onegin will be a huge success, especially at the Met. It's going to sell and sell, and will be around for the next 20 years. In revival, the direction might be tightened up, and singers with less genteel personalities might be allowed more freedom (witness Wyn-Rogers' individuality).  So even if you don't catch it at the ENO this season, there will be many more chances in years to come.

Photo credits : Neil Libbert, courtesy ENO (detals embedded)


Gavin Plumley said...

There are shortcomings in this production, but I don't entirely agree with your reasoning. I sincerely doubt, for instance, that Tchaikovsky thought Tatyana represented "the fertility of Russian tradition". Given the prevailing criticism of social conventions implied by the piece, surely, if anything, she stands for a break away from nation, politics and the corporate? I agree entirely, however, that the central pair are undercooked.

Doundou Tchil said...

Tradition means different things, so don't dismiss what I say. Onegin dislikes the ways of polite society and the superficial materialism of fancy circles. He is not rejecting a much deeper tradition, which one might call the "soul" (or the soil) of Russia, manifest in the countryside, peasant traditions etc. That's why the garden and the religious procession. Also the references in the text to childhood and simple comforts, alternatives to the artificial life at court. Purity versus corruption. Fertility as something that refreshes and endures however bad regimes may be. This idea runs throughout Russian literature and art. Think Alexander Nevsky, Tolstoy on his farm, even the Tsar playing peasant on the Black Sea. That's why the Larins (and others) retreat to their estates in summer. You've misunderstood if you think Tatyana is a break from "nation, politics and the corporate". Rather, Pushkin and Tchaikovsky are suggesting that ancient Russian tradition is deeper and more enduring than the games of fashionable society. So I stand by my statement. You can think otherwise, but it does not mean I'm wrong.