You can escape into romantic fantasy if you like–for example, at the opera. But it’s not the best way of solving your problems, and you might end up touching off the Russian Revolution. Such is the message, more or less, of Stefan Herheim’s production of Yevgeny Onegin at the Nederlandse Opera. Modern Onegin is wandering around a bunch of bored nouveaux riches when an obsessively repeating bit of recorded dance music triggers his memory, the live orchestra starts the prelude, and away we go on a journey through Russian history.
This is a show that really goes for broke and is a triumph on just about every count. That live orchestra is no less than the Royal Concertgebouw, with Mariss Jansons conducting, and the all-around strong cast is led by Krassimira Stoyanova’s arguably absolutely perfect Tatiana. And there’s that production…
Chaikovsky, Yevgeny Onegin. De Nederlandse Opera/Holland Festival, 6/20/2011. New production by Stefan Herheim, sets by Philipp Fürhofer, costumes by Gesine Völlm, lighting by Olaf Freese. Koninklijk Concertgebouworkest conducted by Mariss Jansons with Krassimira Stoyanova (Tatiana), Bo Skovhus (Onegin), Andrej Dunaev (Lenski), Mikhail Petrenko (Gremin), Elena Maximova (Olga), Olga Savova (Larina), Guy de Mey (Monsieur Triquet).
First I want to say that this production will be broadcast on June 23 on Mezzo TV and presumably later available on DVD. I encourage you to watch it, and perhaps do so before you read my review–I didn’t read anything about the production before I saw it and I think it was more effective that way. Spoilers, as they say, ahead.
Past and present overlap in this production. Onegin looks back on the chance he lost through the lens of 19th century Russia, and Tatiana also reflects back on the days when she was more of a dreamer. In Pushkin’s poem, Onegin is a “superfluous man,” rich, intelligent, and idle. In Herheim’s production, Onegin’s search for a place in society is equated with Russia’s own perpetual identity crisis. Lensky and Gremin are in part his alter-egos. Lensky is the 19th-century poet who sacrifices himself for his ideals, Gremin is the modern Putin-age capitalist and functionary. Onegin himself is caught in between, passive and powerless.
We enter the story at the moment after Onegin’s Act 3 arioso–which you will know right off if you recognize the recorded music at the start. (That this recorded music, placed somewhere upstage, is more “realistic” than the much richer sound of the actual orchestra is only the first of the production’s ironies.) Until we reach that point in Act 3, everything is a dreamy flashback. The unit set is the tacky marble-walled salon of the opening, but a diamond-shaped glass room in its center unveils Onegin and Tatiana’s memories, first revealing Larina and Filipevna. Later, the room produces peasants resembling colorful Russian dolls (who sing together with the modern guests from the opening), and a full-fledged nineteenth-century ball.
Sometimes the staging is straightforwardly plot-oriented but makes you understand the characters in a whole new light: when Onegin and Lensky first appear, Olga is interested in Onegin, not Lensky, and Onegin seems to go to Tatiana just to tease her. Lensky is even something of an ignored loser. The events that lead to the duel suddenly make a lot more sense.
But it’s not all that simple. In the Letter Scene, Tatiana lives or relives her writing as Gremin sleeps, and Onegin simultaneously writes a letter to her or takes her dictation (remember how he sings the music from her aria in Act 3?). She gets to sing it to him as she imagines him, and he gets to witness what he missed (she even manages to transform the Gremin in her bed into Onegin by the end of the scene). It’s a gratifying change for everyone, audience included–usually we don’t get to see Onegin and Tatiana in love with each other but here we do and awwwww–but, still, it’s only in their imaginations. That, in fact, is the point.
Other fantasies are more dangerous. In the midst of a fancy ball complete with giant dancing bear (the turntable of the glass room is used to great effect, none of the poem’s provincialism here), the Baroque M. Triquet summons a large star that shoots sparks, setting his giant wig on fire, to general hilarity. Um, was that just a joke or was it the revolution of 1905? Watch out for those stars. Challenging Onegin, Lensky gets ahold of Tatiana’s red book and the glowing star is replaced with a flaming iron one, and the ball is invaded by armed men. Welcome to the Russian Revolution. As history, its interaction with the plot is dubious–I guess the poet loses his innocence and takes violent action (while still depending on the fantasies found in his books, this time a red one). But the sense of honor involved in a duel doesn’t fit with that. As theater, however, my jaw may have literally dropped.
After the personal drama of the first half (which extends up to the first ball), the second half is comparatively scattershot and aims some jokes at giant Soviet targets. But it’s still massively entertaining. In the duel, Onegin kills off nineteenth-century Romanticism by shooting Lensky in the back. In the Polonaise at the ball that follows, we see a parade of Soviet icons: ballet dancers, cosmonauts, steroid-enhanced Olympic athletes, etc., none of whom can help Onegin or Russia find their way. Tatiana and Gremin now appear in kitschy glitter. And we have gotten to the point where we started. At the very end, Gremin encourages Onegin to shoot himself, but takes out the bullets first. Onegin is powerless to the very end.
In a production as complex and involving as this one, the specific musical choices tend not to stick out–not because they aren’t important, but just because there is so much to look at and think about. That was not the case here, which was close to musically ideal. The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in the pit was a rare luxury, and sounded exquisite, though not Russian at all. This was Jansons’s approach, which favored delicacy and transparency over bombast and soupy sentimentalism and showed beautiful details of texture and phrasing. They also proved to be considerably better accompanists than the very loud Berliner Philharmoniker, and despite a shallow orchestra pit balances were excellent. The chorus also sounded very good. (It must be noted that Jansons must be using a Von Karajan 2000 XTall Edition podium, and was very visible at all points.)
Bo Skovhus was a good Onegin for many of the same reasons he was miscast as Mandryka in Vienna in March. His lyric, expressive voice and urbane air are perfect as this confused but unusually personable Onegin, though he overacts at times. The real vocal highlight of the performance was Krassimra Stoyanova’s glorious Tatiana, sung with ease, beautifully rich and slightly dark tone and perfect musicality. She tends to be a cool actress, but here found a very sympathetic restrained warmth and vulnerability that was touching without ever being too much. (Overacting must be tempting in Herheim productions. You’ve got a lot of competition. Did I mention the giant dancing bear?) Andrej Dunaev sounded ardent and impassioned as Lensky, perhaps a bit too ardent and consistently loud at times. A little more expressive subtlety would have helped in the aria. The three other ladies were excellent, particularly Elena Maximova’s sparky Olga. Mikhail Petrenko was onstage a lot more than most Gremins (though his role was defined by a lack of personality), and sang the aria with expansive but still lyric tone.
In all, a marvelous night at the opera. Don’t miss this one, even if you have to wait for the DVD. Performances continue in Amsterdam through the beginning of July.
The Muziektheater in Amsterdam is a modern venue, located in the same building as the city hall and shaped like an arena similar to the Großes Festspielhaus in Salzburg (though considerably smaller). It’s not beautiful and the many little light bulbs look like a movie theater, but it’s a lot better than the Opéra Bastille. Logistically, however, it seems to suffer something of a shortage of bicycle parking (this is Amsterdam), leading to a lot of clutter outside.
Production photos copyright Forster.