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2009-5, Vienna, Eugene Onegin

Eugene Onegin


Composer: Pyotr Tchaikovsky
Librettist: Modest Tchaikovsky after Pushkin’s story
Venue and Dates: Staatsoper, Vienna
23, 26, 29 May, 2, 4 June 2009
Conductor: Seiji Ozawa
Director: Falk Richter
Tatyana: Tamar Iveri
Olga: Elizabeth Kulman (May); Zoryana Kushpler (June)
Eugene Onegin: Simon Keenlyside
Lensky: Marius Brenciu (May); Ramón Vargas (June)
Prince Gremin: Ain Anger
Larina: Aura Twarowska
Filipjewna: Margareta Hintermeier
Monsieur Triquet: Alexander Kaimbacher
The Captain: Hans Peter Kammerer
Zaretzki: Marcus Pelz
Ein Vorsänger: Wolfram Igor Derntl


Petra Habeth, 29 May 2009

A personal view of Eugene Onegin, Vienna, March and May 2009

Having seen two performances and translated a lot of more or less witty reviews [see http://www.simonkeenlyside.info/Articles/Perform/EugeneOnegin/2009EugeneOneginVienna.html], I wanted to write down my impressions of the productions and the two casts.

That nearly every German-speaking critic would use the first line of the German Christmas song “Leise rieselt der Schnee” (Silently the snow trickles) was a sure as death and taxes. The snow dominated the scenes far too much, and when at first you were amused by it as it showed so strikingly “cold Russia” you later simply got bored by it. I was not waiting for a harvest-scene out of an old fashioned sentimental film but why the farmers were factory workers wearing blue overalls with metal toolboxes in their hands simply escaped me. Oh yes, I forgot their completely superfluous acrobatics, and the couples always standing in the background, in the snow, mostly embracing each other, were also unnecessary.

The costumes announced that this would not be shown in the “original” time period  – as the director had said –  he wanted a “timeless” Onegin. Of course the main emotions and conflicts can (and were) happening in every time but in these “quite modern times” Filipjewna’s story and the duel somehow did not fit. When Lenski and Onegin started quarrelling at the Name Day party they nearly ended up hitting each other – that would have been more convincing (even though I don’t think that the singers would have been amused!)

Where the director succeeded were the characterisations of the main roles, although maybe overdoing it a bit with Olga for my taste. When Tatjana has piles of books around her, reading and carrying one of them, Olga wants to distract her with fashion magazines, Olga’s main duty is to dance around playing the vamp.

Tatjana is a very shy young girl in the beginning, teased by her sister and her mother concerning her books. When Lenski arrives with Onegin and starts flirting with Olga, Onegin turns – slightly bored – towards Tatjana and has at first a look through the title of the books because she has fled embarrassed to the very side of the stage. The following scene is the best for me, the most convincing of the whole production. In other productions Tatjana and Onegin leave the stage during the duet between Olga and Lenski, here they simply walk to the background of the stage, and you can see why and how Tatjana falls in love with Onegin. Suddenly there is a man who has got the same interests in books as herself, he takes her book and shows her special parts of it, he kind of lectures to her and she hangs on his lips, he seems to understand her and takes her seriously! It is really no wonder that she falls in love and thinks him the only person she could share her life with.

Lenski is an enthusiastic young man, totally in love with Olga, impressed by her impulsiveness and her liveliness which he lacks and because of that becoming jealous in the same amount when seeing her messing around with Onegin at the Name Day party. Olga is simply enjoying it without thinking, let alone SEEING consequences, Onegin meanwhile is mostly looking to Lenski although misjudging the effects on him. When Lenski explodes, after several vodkas (out of the bottle!) Onegin is at first full of remorse but since Lenski insults him and as the whole party  is threatening him he becomes aggressive himself until he leaves the party as an outcast.

In the duel scene the possibility of reconciliation was never seen to be close, and then Zaretzki interrupts and the drama takes its course. Lenski takes the pistol but puts it away again without being visible to Onegin who just stretches out his arm and shoots without really aiming. When Zaretzki confirms the death Onegin dashes to Lenski and cradles his dead friend in his arms. I had the feeling that Onegin became grown up in that very moment.

The “ball-scene” cannot be so called because there is no ball – the wonderful Ecossaise is totally wasted, there is a huge staircase over the entire stage – everything coldly shimmering with silver and reflecting like mirrors – the chorus appears in couples in evening clothes and simply stand on the stairs waiting for Gremin and his wife to arrive. Onegin was sitting on the steps, making way for the couples but not noticed or even seen by them. When Gremin and his wife arrive, Tatjana now changed into a society lady, Gremina, she remains on the upper step, recognising Onegin whilst her husband goes to him, embracing and talking to him. During Gremin’s aria Tatjana and Onegin stalk around each other in safe distance between the couples – always followed by a spotlight.

In the little break to the last scene you see Onegin writing HIS letter but the poor man has to kneel on the floor to do it …. in his evening dress …

The last scene is again very emotional – I have never seen a Tatjana being SO close to giving in to the pleas of Onegin, he is kneeling at her feet and in confessing that she still loves him she sinks in his arms. For a second you ask yourself if the opera will end differently this time but before Onegin is able to realise “his success” she breaks away from him and leaves him. Onegin remains broken, shattered, but for how long? As much as you believe in Onegin’s feelings the moment he utters them you simply do not believe that they could or would last, (and this is as the director wanted it to be – as SK said in an interview)

Now to the protagonists: Although the opera is named Eugen Onegin, the main part is Tatjana. I had seen and heard Tamar Ivery in that part already in Munich and find her not only visibly totally fitting – you believe her changing from shy girl to society lady – but also vocally. She has got a wonderful warm soprano and her piani are adorable. She had a huge success (in Munich and Vienna). The two different Olgas I saw, Nadja Krasteva in March and Elisabeth Kulman in May, were both quite equal – playing the part as the director wanted – and Olga is not a part in which you really can impress, at least in my opinion. This is very possible for Lenski and also here I saw and heard two tenors, Ramon Vargas in March and Marius Brenciu in June. I’m sorry to say that whereas Ramon Vargas was the one who had worked with the director, Brenciu was the one who really acted. Concerning  the voices they are so different that only personal taste can decide. Both were keeping their voice wonderfully controlled especially their big aria but Vargas with a more dark, lyric and “Italian” sounding voice, Brenciu with a “whiter” voice, clear and with more possibilities in the “aggressive” moments. Gremin was Ain Anger and sang his aria with a balmy voice but I would have wished that the director would have followed Pushkin’s text and he would have “made” him older. Such a good looking, tall, young Gremin makes – for me – Tatjana’s rejection of Onegin not so hard, even understandable.

Now Onegin himself: At the first performance I was very curious how Simon Keenlyside would play that arrogant, egoistic dandy that  I had always previously seen Onegin portrayed by different Baritones. But the part was differently portrayed in this production, he is the loner, not wanting to be bound to somebody, not in friendship let alone love. And so his voice does not have to become “cold” in rejecting Tatjana, he is more kind of embarrassed and almost tender because he did not want to hurt her. So he was able to play with every colour of which he is able to put in his voice and especially  his  pleading in the last scene was breath-taking both times. It is a pity that the main part has no big aria, the two little ones are so embedded in the scenes that they are over before most of the audience have recognised it.

Alexander Kaimbacher as Triquet had to show himself as a mixture of  Elvis and Tom Jones and in this moment there is that much action on the stage that I was not really able to “listen” to him, you more see then hear that moment.

Aura Twarowska as Larina and Margareta Hintermeier as Filipyewna completed the ensemble.

Concerning Seiji Ozawa and the orchestra I had to translate comments like “erratic in delivery” or “disappointing” and I don’t know why. I liked it both times, the highlights were very well prepared, the singers were carried never covered, even in their lowest piano – what do I want more?

Terence Dawson, 11 June 2009

Personal review of the performance on Tuesday 2 June 2009

One of the great conductors, a world class orchestra, a great singing actor as the eponymous hero and a first class supporting cast in one of the great romantic operas of the 19th century all let down by a production that is so bad it is actually perverse.

A continuous blizzard as a backdrop, a bare stage with “Ice cubes” of various sizes as the only furniture for acts 1 and 2. In the great ballroom scene of act 3, we get a stage filling staircase and a glittering backdrop that makes a palace look like a “palais de danse“.

Costumed ambiguously somewhere in the mid 20th century, the Larin Estate workers, in the harvesting scene, turn up as factory workers.

It is in these details that the perversity lies. The heroine Tatyana is a country girl, though of a land owning family, longing for the sophistication of the big city. Madam Larina, her mother, cannot be a factory owner! Harvests do not take place in mid winter! The Spanish Ambassador, one of the guests at the ball, would not be in a thirties dance hall!

The perversity of this continuously wintry staging is not reflected in the performances, for this is the warmest of Onegins. For example, Larina and the nurses duet, in the first act, of nostalgia and the meaning of happiness, was done as a humorous reminiscence, rather than a regretful look at the past, as is usual.

Tamar Iveri was the perfect Tatyana; shy, excitable, embarrassed, passionate and, ultimately, mature and noble. Her famous letter scene beautifully sung and acted with a charming naivety.

Ramon Vargas was a fine Lensky, his Italianate tenor voice, tender and emotional in his farewell to his love Olga, in the duel scene. Not every ones choice for Lensky, I know, but he acted with conviction, particularly in his scenes with Keenlyside’s Onegin. His acting performances are getting better and better.

Now what of Simon Keenlyside’s first Onegin? Such a difficult role to bring off. Unlike Tatyana and Lensky he does not have a big aria to sing, yet ultimately any performance of this work rises or flounders on this characters portrayal and Keenlyside brings it off with his usual intelligence and style. For me scene after scene made sense for the first time; his relationship with Lensky, his flirtation with Tatyana and his rebuttal of her love letter, the poignant duel when he kills his friend and his final declaration of love to Tatyana that, after admitting she still loves him, she rejects, leaving him broken on the stage. Onegin, cold and aloof? (Perpetual winter! Ice cubes! Get it?) Not Keenlyside’s. Yes emotionally immature and patronising but not cruel and unfeeling.

In this performance he makes you realise that this is part of. Onegin’s life journey. From the realisation, at the death of his friend, of how shallow and meaningless his life has been, to the point where his profound love is rejected, by the now mature, Tatyana. One feels this could be the making of him.

The orchestra of the Vienna State Opera was nothing short of magnificent under the direction of Seiji Ozawa, as was the amazing energy of the chorus and dancers.


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