Tag Archives: Eugene Onegin

Vacuum packed opera

23 Sep
Image courtesy of Andrew Rudin via Twitter (@groveguys)

Image courtesy of Andrew Rudin via Twitter (@groveguys)

Yesterday Peter Gelb, the General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera wrote for Bloomberg:

Throughout its distinguished 129-year history, the Met has never dedicated a single performance to a political or social cause, no matter how important or just. Our messaging has always been through art.

You can read the rest of his argument for not designating the opening gala for Onegin as an occasion to support LGBT people in light of Russia’s recent anti-gay legislation. While reading it I was overtaken by a sense of misplaced propriety by Mr Gelb and also made me wonder what arts bodies like the Met should stand for.

I don’t think arts organisations can be operating like social zombies…happy to hoover public funding but not keen to fulfill a social function. In the world of North American opera Houses the funders are the gods of the circuit. But what do they buy by giving millions to an opera house…a glitzy gala and access privileges or do they also castrate the ability of the organisation to have ideals and to pursuit them?
An organisation of the global reputation and reach of the Met Opera  has more responsibility than smaller houses to set an example. The world of opera cannot afford to be seen in total removal from the reality. The real world is meant to be reflected in its work, outreach and education is part of it but also it should be brave enough to have moral values and to stand by them regardless of what the fat wallets have to say.

Life is political by definition (Aristotle defined it as being part of the Polis, the ancient Greek word for city. Being a citizen one is a political being) and art reflecting life should ideally have an engagement with what means to be human and to be ready to fight for gross injustice and inequality. The arts have traditionally been a fertile field for shady governments to find a fig leaf to cover their dehumanising policies and use artists as the disseminators of propaganda. In a democratic country like the US it is puzzling to me why Mr Gelb will post an open letter essentially presenting the Met Opera as a sympathetic but crucially inert behemoth. Many will say the anti-gay agenda is only part of Putin’s pursuit of his own people and neighbouring nations, which is understandable. My main protest against the Met is its happiness to be seen as a political blank slate. A company that has nothing to say with its work to a world audience, a brain-dead showbiz establishment with no social nous.

Art and artists have found ingenious ways to protest against oppression over the years. Due to the funding basis of the Met being largely private I can understand Mr Gelb wanting to please them by being seen to skirt controversy. But running a major institution can at times be a testing and political business. I was proud when British art establishments from National Museums to the Royal Opera  House came together to fight the imminent budget cuts by an unsympathetic government and not sit and wait for it to happen with fatalistic abandon. If arts institutions don’t have anything to say about our wider environment and life they become a fossil, perpetuating emptiness and pushing themselves into a niche of irrelevance and deference.

Please do go and sign the petition on here which has reached over 9.116 signatories already.

Tonight’s opening gala for Onegin at the Met Opera and despite the management’s numb reaction. Has the potential to be a watershed moment, I hope a lot of the patrons present will wear the rainbow ribbons to show support for the campaign. What is more worrying is that Valery Gergev who is a close ally of President Putin has not deemed the campaign worthy of a statement in the New York Times or any other publication to date. His silence becoming more of a puzzle as the days go past.

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A good recent example of applying political pressure are those two blog posts on the Royal Opera House website encouraging direct action across the country to make the government take notice:

The Royal Opera House did urge readers of their blog to lobby their MP

A call for support to make the case for the arts

If you fancy supporting the cause on your social media accounts feel free to use the avatar picture below

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Shoot the doppelgänger / Eugene Onegin / Royal Opera House – 11 February 2013

15 Feb

ROH OneginIt was a catalogue of misfortunes that added to an overall uneven and at times unjustifiably flat performance of Yevgeny Onegin (the Royal Opera not too keen to use that title it seems). The non operational surtitles during the first half was not the best advert for the ROH but surely they have well practised tannoy apologies and they delivered it twice to the amusement of everyone occupying the cheap seats. Glad to report a pensioner’s riot and occupation of the Amphitheatre was averted at the last minute and a few photocopies of the synopsis later.

Let me start from the positives, the set and costumes were rather elegant. The set comprises a four doored frontage is turn of the century plasterwork and mouldings. All in an off white colour heavily influenced by Vilhelm Hammershøi‘s melancholic interiors and the backdrops behind were modelled on Gerhard Richter‘s painfully beautiful and trendy abstracted photorealism rendered in video animation. Visually it was a potent mix that had an equal amount of suggestion and representation. The respectively red and blue palette used for Tatyana and Yevgeny creating a stark contrast against the rest of the colour choices (pistachio for Olga, beige and powder blue for Lensky, black for the chorus) and making them pop. The set was particularly successful as a setting when the doors closed and the front of the stage became surprisingly intimate. But somehow the parallel nature of the set made it look like something designed for Holten’s previous employer, the Royal Danish Opera, where they do scene changes by moving sets sideways. Spent most of the evening expecting the set to slide sideways, but to no avail since the ROH does not have such a facility the set stayed put. With Madame Larina’s ballroom looking as wide as a goods lift it barely inspired. Things did get better in the last act when Prince Gremin’s ballroom extended to a further room doubling the space and the perspectival play was very effective coupled with some well done choreography.

Unfortunately the orchestra under Robin Ticciati did not seem to find its way through the lyrical score, with notable lack of balance at times and off pacing. Particularly the letter scene and the finale stood out too much with the orchestra playing too loudly and in total contrast to the earlier slack tempi that sent many a pensioner to sleep.

The insurmountable obstacle that stops me from loving this interpretation is Holten’s use of doppelgänger dancers of their young selves  idea for Tatyana and Yevgeny, it is both inconsistent (they only appear in a handful of scenes) and it is distracting that the singers acknowledge their presence. Had they been treated as memories and thus remained untouchable it may have worked. In this case it seemed like the director lost confidence in the singers to express emotion through their acting and needed the use of two dancers to mime instead. Another thought that passed my mind was the possibility that the Director walked into the rehearsal room and thought ‘oh my, they both look too old for the characters’ and brought in the dancers to embody them in Act One.

The doppelgänger idea falls totally flat in the letter scene where Stoyanova is left just pacing on the stage while the “young Tatyana” rithed and contorted her way, draped herself on the chair and just sucked out the oxygen from such an accomplished singer, especially when she sang with such assurance and feeling.

Another terrible example was the duel between Lensky and Yevgeny, with the dancer getting possession of the gun while Keenlyside looks on and mirrors his movements pointlessly. The apogee of this emptiness in the staging comes when the dancer actually pulls the trigger. It saps all the energy from this macho confrontation scene and renders it weak and almost incidental. You can imagine what must be going through Keenlyside’s head when he is being marginalised to such a degree during such a crucial scene. He did do his best but unfortunately I paid more attention to the branch that Breslik carried in for the duel, than the singers.

Overall the singing was from very good to excellent, Keenlyside admittedly took a while to warm up but he was absolutely wonderful in the last Act. Stoyanova was wonderfully warm and paid unique attention to the libretto, also moved with elegance and when left to act (like in the last scene, where the doppelgänger has gone) she was captivating to watch. Peter Rose’s Gremin was as imperious as one would expect but also brought a vulnerability that made him much more believable than usual. Diana Montague, always a classy singer, delivered stage charisma in spades in the largely thankless role of Madame Larina. The audience’s favourite was Pavol Breslik who did sing with vim and longing and we all felt sorry for having to endure being dead on the ground for the last forty or so minutes. A ludicrous directorial decision that again added very little to the story and just made it much more difficult for him and his colleagues, who had to avoid stepping on him on a number of occasions. To be honest none of the clutter that made the front of the stage, from Tatyana’s strewn books to the harvested bunches of wheat, to the dead body ever got cleared. It was another comment on memory, but my goodness it made for sloppy looking staging and was rather too obvious.

It is beyond me why directors find Onegin such a fertile ground for silly experiments. Tchaikovsky’s opera couldn’t be more straightforward and the fact he entrusted its première to the students of the Conservatoire in Moscow makes that evident. I presume Holten thinks he has added another layer of interpretation, with his direction focusing on the nature of memory and looking back in retrospect with regret. Unfortunately in this case all he added was a distancing device that told us surprisingly little that is not already in the score. Seeing it two days after Konwitschny’s  Traviata and after the very successful Opera Holland Park production last summer it proved to be an evening of style over substance. This production did not seem to be happy to either go avant garde and offer a different concept or to be traditional. It occupied a middle ground that was neither very interesting or to the benefit of the material.

ROH Onegin list

 

Onegin in the park / Yevgeny Onegin / Opera Holland Park – 17 July 2012

21 Jul

This was my second experience with Opera Holland Park. The set up is a big tented stage with about 500 seats facing the remains of Holland House which was destroyed during the second world war. Like any other temporary/seasonal venue it has a number of obstacles to overcome, but here the biggest is how to incorporate the entrance portico of the ruin into every stage set. Previously the design for Lucia di Lammermoor tried to hide it. For Onegin Leslie Travers incorporated it as a vital part of the set, with its own lighting and used for the most dramatic entrances to the stage.

The production directed by Daniel Slater has a very strong concept which adds depth and drama. The production starts with Yevgeny standing on the stage holding Tatyana’s letter while she drifts in from the opposite side both dressed in long black coats. Those appearances by Onegin become the leitmotif of this production and the set of what seems to be a large house after it has been ransacked is an effective if not quite a traditional setting. The different set components seem to allude to each character, the bookcase to Tatyana, the mirror to Olga the crashed to the floor chandelier to Yevgeny’s life and Lensky. Maybe that’s a too fanciful a reading, lets just say the set for the First Act works admirably well, suggesting a feeling of calm desolation. The ramp like long table and the piano having the appearance of their legs being sank in the snow. The very whiteness of the set may seem a contrived wintry Russian setting but it most importantly creates a neutral space for the interpretative gifts of the singers and the nuances of the directing to start emerging.

The young cast is a refreshing change from having 55 year old Tatyanas and equally grown up Olgas that tend to grace the main stages. The true star turn was from Anna Leese who in her third assumption of the role of Tatyana inhabits it with a rare sense of style and a remarkably detailed acting and singing. In the first Act she embodies the bookworm Tatyana, a shy and quiet girl being taken over by love and in total disbelief. Her letter scene was truly wonderful, full of warmth and not given to over sentimentalism and dreariness that can so easily turn this opera into an over-romanticised nightmare. She was helped by the subtle and well paced playing of the City of London Symphonia, which in all honestly could use a few more violins and cellos for extra heft. Onegin is seen as a free spirit that doesn’t want to settle, the flashbacks show his remorse and loneliness.  A slightly surreal touch is when the ladies of the chorus surround and taunt him with a letter each, dressed as Tatyana, while he reads her letter. Their duet is intense but importantly it does not involve any physical contact, just at the very end he holds her hand, that sense of distance and unrequited desire is exactly at the very heart of the score and libretto and here they prepare the ground for the meeting in Act Three.  Lensky is played for laughs in this act and it adds to another comedic element, Filippyevna who in the capable hands of Sikora becomes the comedy granny that sees everything but pretends to not hear it. Her short flippant conversation with Tatyana while being asked to deliver the letter roused a few giggles in the audience with the telling look she gave Leese.

After the interval the Second Act the chandelier (which is lying prone on the ground previously) was lifted off the ground and is full of lit candles, a lovely touch by Leslie Travers adding life and colour to the otherwise  stark palette. The dance takes place and gradual inflammation of the atmosphere between Lensky and Onegin. Auty’s singing of his aria before the duel was full of passion and even if he doesn’t maybe have the fullness of voice one would want, he surely had the eagerness.

One aspect of the staging that did not work for me was the duel, having the characters at opposite ends of the stage takes the tension off the process. Had they been back to back in the more conventional fashion it would have made it more dramatic. The addition of an extra insinuated lover for Olga adds another layers to the plot which makes more sense of her sudden disinterest in Lensky.

The opening of the Third Act is possibly the largest coup de theatre in this production, the polonaise used to create a Soviet Russian setting with choristers dressed in factory worker uniforms, setting up the stage for a visit by a high-ranking official, thus turning Prince Gremin into a communist party big wig. A truly inspired idea as it allows for stunning iconography (including a huge Lenin portrait in the wardrobe and a red carpet spanning the width of the stage) and making Tatyana’s obedience/loyalty to her husband even more convincing.

Anna Leese maybe was denied a beautiful dress for the finale but we gained a wonderfully cold confrontation scene with Onegin. Her refusal to consider him is out of self-preservation and the wisdom of the intervening years. I would challenge anyone not to find this older Tatyana moving and theatrically exciting. Mark Stone was at his best when interacting with Leese and their final scene was truly exceptional.

Despite the intervention with the flow of the plot line and the extensive use of flashback, the production succeeds in creating a taut, flowing drama that intensifies as we reach closer to the climactic finale. The integration of the ruins of Holland House and the use of such an expressive and enthusiastic cast makes for a memorable evening and Opera Holland Park should be congratulated on staging it in Russian unlike a lot of UK opera companies that opt for translations. The sound of the original language really adds depth and grounds the lyricism of the score. Adds a certain earthiness to the most passionate exchanges making them more believable and far away from the niceties of the English language.

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