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Yee-Haw Onegin

On Halloween, the Staatsoper Munich opened its new production of Eugene Onegin. On the account of one small and grainy picture, it gained instant notoriety among chattering and blogging classes. This is a review from the third performance, November 3rd.

An overtly gay Tchaikovsky stand-in, frolicking about mid-opera on a stage replete with swirling disco ball. Where or when could I ever have seen such a thing?!

Oh, right. That would be the last time I saw a Tchaikovsky opera at the Staatsoper in Munich

Back then it was Pique Dame during the shepherdess intermezzo—a David Alden production (still in the repertoire) and one that, disco ball aside, made sense of the opera in a way only the best directions do. This time it was Krzysztof Warlikowski’s turn to dust off that prop, all in the service of his – infamous before it even started – “Brokeback Mountain” Eugene Onegin. Did his direction give intelligible and instructive cues as to the meaning(s) of the opera in the way that Alden’s did? To give away the answer: Maybe not.

But Warlikowski failed much less spectacularly than one might have assumed after the hoity-toity outrage the production received at the hands of bloggers (and this on account of a single picture of the production). Of course, local critics, too, were merciless – and they had actually seen the production that opened on All Hallows Eve. As it turns out, Warlikowski’s Onegin remains so tame for the first four scenes that during intermission even the most conservative audience members (by now having read the reviews and expecting the absolute worst) were confused only by their lack of confusion and outrage. Instead, most had been amused by Warlikowski’s production. An American couple, seat-neighbors at a previous Roberto Deveraux performance, had bought their Onegin tickets without knowing of the furor. Worrying before the performance, the wife said that she wished not to be here at all, anticipating a travesty of travesties. Later, chuckling throughout the first four scenes, she admitted with as much surprise as relief that it actually had been rather “maaaarvelous”.

That’s mostly because the acting was well done and its relation to the text always comprehensible. A theater director by primary trade, Warlikowski cares much about acting and movements and music making sense as a unit. If only the orchestra had followed the singers’ music as closely as the prescribed stage-action did, the contribution from the pit would not have been the weakest spot of the night.

To get that out of the way: General Director Kent Nagano directed the less-than-secure orchestra in a square reading of the score, making the music sound very direct and thereby achieving much clarity but little lyricism. The brass was secure for most of the opera; the strings had several sour moments, most notably in the Waltz of the fourth scene. Judging from reviews from the day before, it must have been a significant improvement from opening night but still not up to the high standards of the Staatsorchester. When I last saw Onegin, in February at the MET (Renée Fleming, Dmitri Hvorostovsky), I had not been enchanted by the MET orchestra under Gergiev’s baton; but in retrospect it seems not to have been so bad after all.

So what does Warlikowski, a Stettin-born, self-declared “cosmopolitan” who has lived and worked in Paris, New York, Hamburg, in Croatia, Italy, Israel, Canada, and Poland , do to poor Eugene Onegin? His interview in TAKT (in German) and in the accompanying program book (those lavish 150-page “notes” at the Staatsoper, chock full of accompanying essays, pictures, and assorted poems, are no booklets) do shed some light. There is the murder of Lensky seen as an Amfortas-like wound that completes Onegin as a character. And the expanded upon close relation between the two men helps to make their seemingly juvenile and rash decision to duel to the death seem sound. Even for two adults. There are the plenty references to Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain and Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (which Warlikowski has directed).

The parallels drawn between Tchaikovsky, his life, and the influences on his Onegin, and then the director team’s interpretation thereof are not as far fetched as they might seem. The composer’s homosexuality, to start with the most obvious, is not conjecture. Tchaikovsky was as fruity as a Pineapple Spritzer, no two ways about it. (Just read his letters to his brothers to get a uncommonly candid taste of it.) Tchaikovsky’s disapproval of Tatiana being coldly turned down by Onegin (who could be seen as written with a degree of self-loathing on the composer’s part) may well have led to Tchaikovsky’s own reassessment of having turned down Antonina Miljukova’s emotional letter and marriage proposal.

Lensky’s revolt, the irrational anger against his friend, and Onegin’s disdain of Lensky’s intent to marry can also be made to fit a subtext in which Lensky, in deference to Onegin, may have 'given up' more than he should like to admit publicly or even to himself. Gay or not, Onegin is quite disgusted with Lensky’s bourgeois choice and thus hurt he cynically and heartlessly mocks him. Lensky, in the throws of anger (and guilt, too, for having submitted in one way or another to Onegin), challenges Onegin to a duel, dismissing calmer and more reasonable voices. The action essentially becomes a fight between Olga and Onegin for Lensky’s attention and friendship, sexual or otherwise. A ‘best friend’ fighting against the prospect of ‘losing’ his buddy and the fine life they had, as that buddy is about to subscribe to the standard social model of existence.

All fine, even if the gay subtext need not have been quite so obvious. The opera is not, after all, about bi- or homosexuality; it is about human emotions that transcend social norms and sexuality. Jealousy, love, devotion, anger, submission, humiliation etc. are not homo- or hetero- or bi-sexual, they simply are. No harm was done by having Tatiana (Olga Guryakova) and her family watch figure skating (to Tchaikovsky’s Rome & Juliet Overture, played before the lights were dimmed, with patrons still filing into their seats). Nor by arranging the duet of the naively joyful Olga (Elena Maximova) and Tatiana as a Karaoke session on Malgorzata Szczesniak’s sets that, along with the costumes, looks like a hybrid of the late 60s and a Technicolor modern-day Moscow). Iris Vermillion’s Larina is portrayed as a still attractive socialite who won’t say no to dance and entertainment. In the letter scene, Tatiana tape-records her feelings— no different, really, from a compulsively written letter—and the rejection takes place under the eyes of the choir, making it all the more humiliating for Tatiana and Onegin who is (to some comedic effect) disturbed by her overt show of emotions.

The Waltz-scene moves the guests into chairs off to one side and while this staging may be convenient riddance of a difficult-to-direct crowd, the arrangement does make perfect sense for the way Tatiana’s birthday party is arranged. Here especially does Warlikowski hit the nail on the head: In depicting a modern upper-class Russian societal situation, Triquet (Guy de Mey) is a crooner and entertainer for hire (a bit more Elvis-impersonator than the conceited, drunken, French-speaking clown Pushkin makes fun of) and the male strippers who entertain the (bored) ladies don’t surprise much. It’s a Russian Desperate Housewives, by and large convincingly acted out.

Only Onegin (Michael Volle) does not quite fit the picture. In this scene, he is bona fide distraught at Lensky’s anger and apologetically tries to console his friend. I missed the superior carelessness, laced with arrogance, that rides Onegin like the Devil and which he cannot let go until face to face with Lensky (Christoph Strehl) in the duel. And at that point, of course, it is already too late to effectively regret.

As the (real) audience files back into their seats after intermission, nine scantly clad cowboys suggestively lounge about on stage for Scene Five (the Scena prior to Lensky’s aria in Act Two) before they saunter behind stage during the “Duel Scene”.

Except that there was neither a duel – nor a “scene”, per se.

Onegin and Lensky wake up in (literally or metaphorically) the same bed. Lensky’s second, Zaretsky – more mafia-thug than gentleman, is sung by Günther Groissböck who also sings Prince Gremin, a touch that remains almost unnoticed due to his two wildly differing costumes. With the aria out of the way, the dueling gets under way. Lensky takes his shirt off, jumps back into bed where the sole revolver lies. Onegin gets there first and shoots Lensky through the chest. There was a palpable collective “WTF” that went through the opera house. But everything is explained as the disco ball descends, blue velvet curtains drawn around stage and the gay cowboys enter a-dancing the Polonaise. Their slow-motion carousing and pillow fights frighten Onegin who, panicked and threatened, points his gun in futile defense against these (his) nightmarish visions Meanwhile the only thought that came to this reviewer’s mind was : “Hey – pretty good choreography on those Polonaising cowboys!”

This scene elicited what all audience members were looking forward to: the give and take of vigorous boos yelled from all ranks of the house and the contrarian “Bravos” accompanied by loud applause which lasted just over a minute. Once that was taken care of Kent Nagano cracked a smile and everything was back to normal.

Act Three is played out with the entire theater lit out in subdued red like a revue show. Tatiana is no longer the naively enthusiastic, darkly romantic teenager. She has grown into in her new role as a high society wife: steeled but not without feeling, rational but not without pain. Much like Onegin (though more sympathetically so), she is neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’ but merely reacts to her surroundings, dealing with them as befits the situation. And she is right, of course, to turn down Onegin who may be genuine in his feelings but has them for all the wrong reasons. Pushkin’s, Tchaikovsky’s and thankfully Warlikowski’s Eugene Onegin, too, is not a Russian “Pride & Prejudice”. Onegin really is bad news; the motivations for his actions questionable and obscure, perhaps even to himself.

At this point, to the surprise of no one, a line of swaying drag queens enters, smoking, and sipping cocktails. Gremin gets to sing his aria; Onegin, to lament. Then: more drag queens, silently commenting on the scene like a, err… very Greek chorus. Oh, what a bitter fate. Curtain. Eight minutes of generous applause and a tender smidgen of boos.

An attending Russian critic, forewarned by her compatriot friends from Munich (Russian expatriates have established an effective Global Early Warning System as regards opera and ballet productions), merely shrugged approvingly after it all and said, “I don’t know what my friends’ problem was. There was nothing so outrageous about it. You can interpret it that way.”

What helped the reception were no doubt the vocal contributions. Elena Maximova’s Olga might be a fairly small part but she sang excellently throughout, her fresh and radiant mezzo hues almost overshadowing Olga Guryakova’s Tatjana. The latter was frenetically cheered for her very lively and lyrical performance (occasionally pushing a bit toward the top). Michael Volle was an expressive and resounding Onegin, a role he seems to have grown into very nicely. Christoph Strehl sounded under stress and hesitant; near his limits. Usually that would not be not an example of the finest possible singing but it actually befit the character of Lensky very well. Groissböck got the inevitable applause for Gremin’s aria which is just too beautiful not to cheer and was, at any rate, sung honorably. Iris Vermillion, too, was darkly delightful with a chocolaty Larina ; the rest (Elena Zilio’s Filippyevna, Guy de Mey’s Triquet) more or less without fault.

All pictures © Wilfried Hösl, published with kind permission of the Staatsoper München.

1 comment:

Charles T. Downey said...

For anyone interested, here is George Loomis's review of the production for the Financial Times.