Eugene Onegin - De Nederlandse Opera, Het Muziektheater Amsterdam, 18 June 2011
By telling the story largely in interactive flashback, Stefan Herheim's new production ingeniously restores elements of Pushkin's verse novel absent from Tchaikovsky's adaptation. Flitting between Pushkin's time and today, Onegin and Tatiana take turns to contemplate their past. At the same time, modern Russia's identity crisis is explored via a procession of national stereotypes from peasant to patriarchs, communists to cosmonauts. This feels over-ambitious, though to be fair it is truthful to the novel, which is drawn on a larger scale than the opera. The production as a whole though is still an extraordinary theatrical experience, enhanced by the brilliant playing of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra.
Some of the design elements are familiar from other Herheim productions. There's a stage within a stage - a glass cube set within the malachite walls of a grand hotel. There are mirrors and doppelgangers and shape-shifting walls. A giant star drops from the flies, fizzing with fireworks. And there's a pantomime animal - a dancing bear.
Recycled ideas? I prefer to think of it as a visual signature - a style. The doubling techniques also emphasise Pushkin's extraordinary structural symmetry. Herheim places the framing ballroom scenes together at the start. We begin with the modern day Onegin encountering Tatiana and Gremin at some sort of oligarchs' bash, to a scratchy recording of the Act 3 Polonaise. The scene magically (no other word) opens out to reveal a nineteenth century country ball as the live orchestra strikes up. Later, the two letter scenes are merged as Tatiana dictates her famed letter to Onegin while he furiously writes his own.
In the novel, the reader is always conscious of the author's far from neutral narrating voice - it's one of the opera's greatest losses. Herheim's flashback device provides a similar sense of perspective, albeit from a different angle. Of course Onegin, looking back, is powerless to change the past, just as he seems impotent in the present day. His actions are determined by fate alone, his shooting of Lensky in response to the orders of an army commander is as meaningless as everything else he does. The opera ends with Onegin pointing a gun at his own head - inevitably it's empty. He can't even choose to kill himself.
Mariss Jansons conducted the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra on a fittingly epic scale, but fat-free and low in sugar. What a rare treat it was to hear an entire orchestra playing in tune and in time for a start. Crystal-clear textures, immaculate pit-stage co-ordination, unerringly dramatic pacing - every detail was perfect. The band were worth the price of admission on their own.
The singing was not quite as flawless, but Krassimira Stoyanova's Tatiana at least emerged with honours. Her dark, mature tone didn't quite suggest the innocent country girl, but her musical instinct was without question. I do have to wonder though whether she - and a couple of other singers - were amplified in any way. It may just be the venue's acoustics, but she sounded unusually cutting and resonant.
Bo Skovhus's rather dry baritone contrasted with some shameless overacting, but his stamina was impressive considering he was on stage nearly all night. He manages his resources intelligently and created a credible distinction between the older and younger Onegin.
Mikhail Petrenko looked young enough to be Stoyanova's toyboy, but his comparative youth made for an unusually elegantly sung Gremin. Elena Maximova's rich and firm mezzo made her Olga a pleasure to listen to. Not so the Lensky of Andrej Dunaev, who tended to an uncomfortably broad vibrato under the least pressure.
The whole opera will be broadcast live on Mezzo TV on the evening of 23 June, and I would think essential viewing for any opera fan who has access. Not generally available in the UK, but no doubt some enterprising person will capture the show for YouTube. If you're feeling particularly studious and haven't already done so, I recommend reading the novel beforehand to get the full benefit of Herheim's references - and perhaps Nabokov's introduction to his translation too.
The trailer includes a few snatches of the production in between interviews with Stefan Herheim and Bo Skovhus: