Eugene Onegin (Bolshoi Opera) Royal Opera House 11 August

**

Sitting round a table

Before this performance began, my companion had got a little confused about whether we were going to see a ballet or an opera.  I reassured her that even though it was an opera we would see some dances.

But we saw a table instead.

To begin with, the Larin household sat round the table with presumed peasants bringing presumed harvest offerings also sitting round it while Tatyana sat at the edge and looked the other way.  Then Lensky and Onegin arrived and at one stage Mrs Larina claimed that Onegin and Tatyana (who were in fact in front of her) were down by the lake.  Tatyana told the Nurse her secrets from the other side of the table, wrote her letter at the table, shoved the table out of the way to implore divine mercy.  Then in the morning Onegin lectured her from the other side of the table.

A lecture from Onegin

We had a ball were nobody danced because the table took up most of the room (and for a few other reasons as well), but drunken extras swayed about.  Monsieur Triquet’s number was delivered by Lensky, with suggestive accompanying gestures and a toy dog.  Lensky’s farewell aria was attended to only by an old lady, while Olga busied herself about the table.  Onegin arrived for the duel accompanied by his servant Guillot, who cackled incessantly.  The duel consisted of Onegin and Lensky attempting to press a hunting-rifle on each other until Onegin managed to accidentally shoot Lensky in the stomach.

At the interval, we discussed the following ideas:

1)  if you’re a Russian opera company, you must get a bit bored with Eugene Onegin, hence the need to take the piss;

2)  some of it was certainly a return to Pushkin–Tchaikovsky  romanticised and sugared-over the original novel in verse, which had a lot of irony and sarcasm regarding its characters;

3)  as in many productions of Wagner, it was necessary for the director to contradict everything said by the music and the text to show that he was cleverer than us all;

4)  some of it looked like turning the thing into a typical Dostoevskian skandal;

5)  it was just incompetent direction–you needed lots of people on the stage all the time doing something irrelevant to keep the audience entertained;

6) unplumbed salt estranging table;

7) it was trying to convey the character’ total isolation from each other.  I wondered if it was the view from inside Onegin’s head, but that would make no sense since the Larin place would have seemed dreadfully poky to him, not terrifyingly large.  The view from inside Tatyana’s head perhaps?–That sounds more promising…

8)  didn’t I once see a Queen of Spades that had a card-table and card-players in all the scenes?

The beginning of the third act was greeted by a groan as audience members realised the table was still there.

Hopes crushed by a table...

Apart from Onegin wearing a sparkly jacket and indulging himself in a pratfall, the third act passed off quite normally and Gremin’s aria shone like a ray of sunlight amidst the stormy weather.

As Gremin, Anatoly Kocherga was masterful (though displaying a noticeable gear-change in the voice).  Makvala Kasrashvili as Mrs Larina didn’t sound very Russian to me, while Tatyana Monogarova was conducting a one-woman consonant-elimination campaign and did rather descend into the generalised shriekiness of Tchaikovsky’s less popular operatic heroines.  Aleksei Dolgov’s Lensky lacked the true tenor ring, but I liked the Onegin of Mariusz Kwiecen and  I thought he came off best of the singers.  At times I wondered whether the orchestra (conducted by Dmitri Jurowski) were guying the music as well, but maybe they were just playing loudly.

Director and Set Designer Dmitri Cherniakov has got me beat.

don’t understand

I’m not clever enough

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6 Responses to “Eugene Onegin (Bolshoi Opera) Royal Opera House 11 August”

  1. John Naylor Says:

    We have just returned from the 14.8 performance at the ROH, and want to thank you and Vishneshskya for saying what we and the people around us thought of this massively lugubrious production. But what can be done about the opera reviewers of the national press?

  2. Galina Says:

    It was so refreshing to read this honest review.
    Having seen a good dozen of different productions of Eugene Onegin in my life the Cherniakov’s one certainly stands out the most. For all the wrong reasons.
    The strange drinking crowd hanging around the whole time – were they even trained singers or were they just invited friend and family? – they did so little it was not apparent if they had any skills… the duel conducted with a single rifle in the dining room in front of the crowd specially invited in – “now you can come in”… Lenski apparently spending the night in the dining room wearing fur hat and coat… Tatjana’s nurse coming into the dining room in the morning expecting to find Tatjana still asleep (in the dining room?)…
    For the first half we were wondering if Bolshoi’s decorations were perhaps lost in transit? Or the production was sponsored by a furniture factory that insisted that the super-sized models of their furniture are used throughout the performance?
    During the break we were guessing if the table would make an appearance in the third act. My friend, who’d never seen Eugeni Onegin before, suggested it would be too difficult to get rid of. I said they could not possibly do the ball with the table still on stage. Well, they couldn’t. So they got rid of the ball but kept the table. Instead of wonderful russian dancers there was poor old Onegin going in and out hanging his coat, fetching himself chair, drink etc. It was a long stretch to fill. He then says how he does not enjoy parties anymore. Who could blame him?
    Before reading this review I came across numerous glowing reviews by “official” critics. It does feel intimidating to think I did not get it, I am not clever enough. But you know what? I can see what Mr Cherniakov was trying to do according to critics. And I still say – this was the most ridiculous production I have ever seen.

    • notesofanidealist Says:

      Well I supose you’d say a lot of it comes from Tatyana’s dream in Pushkin’s ch. 5:

      she peers discreetly through a chink
      and sees… whatever do you think?
      a group of monsters round a table,
      a dog with horns, a goatee’d witch,
      a rooster head, and on the twitch
      a skeleton jerked by a cable,
      a dwarf with tail, and a half-strain,
      a hybrid cross of cat and crane.

      XVII

      But ever stranger and more fearful:
      a crayfish rides on spider-back;
      on goose’s neck, a skull looks cheerful
      and swaggers in a red calpack;
      with bended knees a windmill dances,
      its sails go flap-flap as it prances;
      song, laughter, whistle, bark and champ,
      and human words, and horse’s stamp!
      But how she jumped, when in this hovel
      among the guests she recognized
      the man she feared and idolized —
      who else? – the hero of our novel!
      Onegin sits at table too,
      he eyes the door, looks slyly through.

      XVIII

      He nods – they start to fuss and truckle;
      he drinks – all shout and take a swill;
      he laughs – they all begin to chuckle;
      he scowls – and the whole gang are still;
      he’s host, that’s obvious. Thus enlightened
      Tanya’s no longer quite so frightened
      and, curious now about the lot,
      opens the door a tiny slot…
      but then a sudden breeze surprises,
      puts out the lamps; the whole brigade
      of house-familiars stands dismayed…
      with eyes aflame Onegin rises
      from table, clattering on the floor;
      all stand. He walks towards the door.

      XIX

      Now she’s alarmed; in desperate worry
      Tatyana struggles to run out —
      she can’t; and in her panic hurry
      she flails around, she tries to shout —
      she can’t; Evgeny’s pushed the portal,
      and to the vision of those mortal
      monsters the maiden stood revealed.
      Wildly the fearful laughter pealed;
      the eyes of all, the hooves, the snozzles,
      the bleeding tongues, the tufted tails,
      the tusks, the corpse’s finger-nails,
      the horns, and the moustachio’d nozzles —
      all point at her, and all combine
      to bellow out: “she’s mine, she’s mine.”

      XX

      “She’s mine!” Evgeny’s voice of thunder
      clears in a flash the freezing room;
      the whole thieves’ kitchen flies asunder,
      the girl remains there in the gloom
      alone with him; Onegin takes her
      into a corner, gently makes her
      sit on a flimsy bench, and lays
      his head upon her shoulder… blaze
      of sudden brightness… it’s too curious…
      Olga’s appeared upon the scene,
      and Lensky follows her… Eugene,
      eyes rolling, arms uplifted, furious,
      damns the intruders; Tanya lies
      and almost swoons, and almost dies.

      XXI

      Louder and louder sounds the wrangle:
      Eugene has caught up, quick as quick,
      a carving-knife – and in the tangle
      Lensky’s thrown down. The murk is thick
      and growing thicker; then, heart-shaking,
      a scream rings out… the cabin’s quaking…
      Tanya comes to in utter fright…

      So Cherniakov has foregrounded this by making his people into monsters (sitting round a table). And I think that Tchaikovsky’s ‘Eugene Onegin’ caused shock horror and revulsion when it was first put on because it was very different from Pushkin’s [perhaps he should have called it ‘Tatyana Larina’ instead]. But Tchaikovsky’s opera is what it is–it’s a bit too late to try to make it into something different…This production just didn’t work for me (as you may have gathered from the posting).

      There’s a sympathetic discussion (in Russian) of an earlier Paris outing of this production at http://www.openspace.ru/music_classic/events/details/2982/page1/

  3. John Wolfson Says:

    Thank you, thank you, and a thousand more thank yous for this perfect analysis of the Bolshoi’s appalling new production of Eugene Onegin. I was hoping that someone would write exactly what the Bolshoi did. Thank you for getting it right, and for reporting it.
    John Wolfson, NYC

  4. Paul Brooke Says:

    You’re right. You’re not nearly clever enough.

    • notesofanidealist Says:

      I’m glad you agree with me! But I *do* know a great deal more about the Russian literary and theatrical background than the average member of the London audience, and I *was* baffled.

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