Sunday, 13 November 2011

Eugene Onegin, English National Opera, 12 November 2011


Madame Larina – Diana Montague
Tatiana – Amanda Echalaz
Olga – Claudia Huckle
Filipievna – Catherine Wyn-Rogers
Eugene Onegin – Audun Iversen
Lensky – Toby Spence
Monsieur Triquet – Adrian Thompson
Zaretsky – David Stout
Prince Gremin – Brindley Sherratt
Captain – Paul Napier-Burrows
Peasant Singer – David Newman

Deborah Warner (director)
Tom Pye (designs)
Chloe Obolensky (costumes)
Jean Kalman (lighting)
Kim Brandstrup (choreography)

Chorus and Additional Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: Martin Merry)
Orchestra of the English National Opera
Edward Gardner (conductor)

Images: Neil Libbert

Was this ENO? Or had I nodded off and slipped into a living Met nightmare? Actually, ‘nightmare’ is too harsh, too interesting, for Deborah Warner’s production of Eugene Onegin, actually conceived, I discovered, as a co-production with the Metropolitan Opera, is just plain dull, a strange throwback to the 1970s or further back still, in which singers sing their lines against a pretty – to some – backdrop in ‘period’ dress that might well have come from a television serial. The ‘period’ in question seems to be slightly later than Pushkin, to no obvious end. Now there is nothing necessarily wrong with ‘traditional’ productions, but this one offered no discernible view upon the work, no discernible insight, save perhaps for a tired, slightly misandrist suggestion that the work might be better off entitled ‘Tatiana Larina’, into the characters and their development, and no discernible provocation or even invitation to think. It is, I think, the first time I have witnessed members of the audience even –  I assure you, I am not making this up – applaud a Coliseum set, in this case as the curtain rose for the third act, obscuring Tchaikovsky's Polonaise. (They indulged in plenty of disruption elsewhere too, a selfish couple seated behind me a particular menace, speaking throughout the performance, unresponsive to the iciest of glares.)

Even from a literalist perspective, there are problems beyond the slight ‘updating’. Once one engages upon such a path, fetishising costumes, scenery, and the like, any deviation tends to stand out like a sore thumb. Thus, whilst a more neutral or suggestive space would doubtless double up without too much trouble for the first three scenes of the first act, we are left wondering in literalist mode why Tatiana appears to sleep in a capacious barn. (It will doubtless be more capacious still in New York.) Child ‘extras’ running around for no particular reason are an irritant; they seem to be a favoured device of the director, her ENO Messiah a case in point. Are not the costumes for the celebration of Tatiana’s name day a little on the dour side for such an occasion? Why does the final scene not appear quite where it ‘should’?

Lensky (Toby Spence)

More serious is the problem alluded to above, whereby Warner’s sympathies seemed only to be elicited by the female characters. It used often to be a critical plaint that the opera should not have been entitled Eugene Onegin; this production, whether by design or by default, comes across as an attempt to revive that view. Everything is centred upon Tatiana. The subtext – at times, it is barely ‘sub-‘ – of Romantic friendship or more between Onegin and Lensky is ignored. Surely it does not take even a leap of the imagination to appreciate how Tchaikovsky would have understood Onegin’s rejection of Tatiana, herself of course in many respects a projection of male homosexuality. To take at face value without any further probing the description of Onegin as an ‘outsider’ seems in this context merely bizarre: would one not at least ask what is meant by ‘outsider’, just as one would in Peter Grimes? The following words surely speak for themselves:

If I had wished to pass my life
within the confines of the family circle,
and benevolent fate had decreed for me
the role of husband and father,
then I should most likely not choose
any bride other than you.
Krzysztof Warlikowski’s Munich production (reviewed here by Jens Laurson) made explicit what might though need not remain implicit. One can remain relatively reticent, though, and still address this central issue of the opera: take Steven Pimlott’s woefully underrated production for Covent Garden, ‘traditional’ in look, but so much more dramatically alert than Warner’s production. Had the action been centred upon Tatiana in especially dramatic, more revisionist, fashion, I am sure that would have been a valid approach, but Warner’s focus seemed more a default setting than anything else.

Onegin (Audun Iversen) and Lensky

There was considerable compensation, however, to be heard from Edward Gardner’s conducting: undoubtedly the best I have heard from him at the Coliseum. If I have been spoilt by my most recent two hearings of the work in the theatre, both conducted by Daniel Barenboim, Gardner nevertheless impressed, Shape and sweep almost unfailingly present. There was a fine swagger to the choral numbers and the dances (in which the dancers made a good impression), which the more intimate moments – insofar as the production permitted them to exist – were executed with tenderness and genuine sympathy. If Gardner’s reading did not quite scintillate in the way that some can, there is plenty of scope for intensification as the run of performances proceeds. He certainly has the ENO Orchestra on fine form, though a few more strings would have been welcome. The chorus, trained by Martin Merry, returned to form too, though all suffered from Martin Pickard’s clunky English translation: if we must do without the Russian text and its inimitable sonorities, then we need a superior substitute.

Toby Spence shone out from the cast. (Lenskys often do.) Though his ardent sincerity was somewhat robbed of context by the production, it nevertheless left its mark. Audun Iversen was likewise hamstrung in the title role, though earlier on, fine English diction notwithstanding, he rarely seemed truly to get inside the part even in musical terms. His performance in the third act heated up nicely, however, so maybe first night nerves were a factor. Amanda Echalaz merely seemed miscast as Tatiana. Her high soprano often seemed thin and disengaged; attempts to compensate skirted dangerously close to Puccini-caricature. Claudia Huckle’s often blowsy Olga struck a discordant note in more than one sense. Adrian Thompson, however, made a fine impression with a sensitive rendition of Monsieur Triquet’s couplets, even if one could have done without the assumed 'French' accent. One dry patch apart, Brindley Sherratt shaped Prince Gremin’s aria well. Catherine Wyn-Rogers and Diana Montague contributed a focus to the roles of Filipievna and Mme Larina that was not always present elsewhere. I could not help wishing that they might be offered a little more to do.

Tatiana (Amanda Echalaz) and Prince Gremin (Brindley Sherratt)

For those weary, then, of Konzept-heavy productions, this Onegin might offer some balm; it is certainly worth hearing for Gardner and Spence. Yet there remains ample room for a more ‘traditional’ production that does not forego interpretation, of whatever variety.

The performance on 23 November will be recorded by BBC Radio 3 for subsequent broadcast.

Recommended performances on CD and DVD:


Lucy said...

Oh dear. I'm glad to hear of the fine quality of the conducting, of course, and gratified if unsurprised to hear that Spence made such a fine Lensky, but... oh dear.

Rendering my consternation still more acute is that the Met's current Onegin is a Robert Carsen which offers at least more interpretative intelligence than what seems to be in evidence here, and is certainly more elegant, with some gorgeous stylized/minimalist outdoor scenes.

Mark Berry said...

I can imagine Carsen making a rather good job of it: sounds to me as if the Met would be better off sticking with what it has...

ella said...

this is such a bitter post. Sometimes I wish all the people that write this way about productions tried to direct/sing/conduct themselves to contribute to the form rather than pick it apart.
I saw the production last night and although it was not impeccable, I thought much of it was very good quality. If you are a director/singer/designer/artist of any kind I hope and wish you make outstanding work and never have to read such bitter reviews of it.

Valerie said...

I agree with Ella's commment. I would be interested in how Lucy know that the Carsen production is more elegant having not seemed to have seen this one. I was there and hugely enjoyed it. Indeed much preferable in my view to the Pimlott ROH one. I spotted Mr Gelb from the Met in the audience and he seemed to be enjoying it very much. Perhaps he will not be too much disappointed by these rather negative remarks but take rather more confort from the thunderous applause at the end and by the 4 and 5 star reviews elsewhere

Mark Berry said...

Valerie: I'd have thought it was quite clear that Lucy was saying Carsen's production was more elegant than what I have outlined here, so if anyone is at fault, it is I.

Ella's asssumption about who might 'contribute to the form' is just that: an assumption. Unless she knows more about us than we know about ourselves. 'Bitter' also seems a very strange decription, implying some personal stake either in the production or in relation to those who have brought it into being. I can assure you that there is no bitterness involved here.

As for 'thunderous applause', that seems a slight exaggeration, at least from where I was seated. And I should hardly take seriously the critical response of an audience that drowned out part of the Polonaise through applauding the scenery... When it comes to Peter Gelb's judgement, is he not the person who helped to create the wretched Vanessa Mae, and wrecked Sony Classical by turning it into a label for film scores and 'crossover' projects?

By all means disagree with what is written, but I am not sure that 'oh no, it isn't' is a very helpful or indeed interesting response. 'Oh no, it isn't, because ...' might well be. In any case, I should hope that words would prove a more adequate, or at least less inadequate, report than the vulgarity of a star-rating system.

Capriccio Blog said...

Dear me! I didn't hate it this much, though agree it had significant problems. I really enjoyed the singing too, and thought the playing was a wee bit scrappy. Didn't you both Lensky and Onegin completely overacted - the last scene was almost laughable from Iverson particularly.

The Carsen is very very beautiful (surprise, surprise) and there's a wonderful DVD with Fleming and Hvorostovsky both about as ideally cast as one could imagine and singing and acting magnificently (Hvorostovsky's woodeness here a boon). Highly recommended. Fleming obviously finds it harder to be the teenager, as she is 49 in that performance, though it's unfair to have the camera so close, but it's clear that she identifies with the character very strongly.

Interesting what you say regarding the homosexual subtext of the opera. I would have put you down as some one who would have thought strong reference to it would be trashy!

David said...

Why is a review which doesn't like a show and argues, perfectly reasonably, why not 'bitter'? I couldn't agree more, except that I didn't think Gardner got it right either, beautiful as much of the playing was. Spence was fabulously engaged, but that's still not enough to make it worth sitting through the rest

Much more worrying is how most critics, but not the public I've spoken to, made allowances way too generous for this vacuous show. I'm amazed at the lack of ideas from Warner.

But you're right to remind us of Pimlott's production, full of great ideas. It got lost in the acclaim for Tcherniakov (which is truthful, ditto Carsen to a lesser extent). But frankly I've never seen as dully staged an Onegin as this. The 2005th performance of the Stanislavsky version in Moscow had more vitality.

Mark Berry said...

Thanks, David. I remain puzzled by the hostile reception Pimlott's production received. It surely would not have scared anyone off, yet it was twenty times more thoughtful than Warner's anodyne presentation. I have responded both positively and negatively to her productions in the past, both in 'straight' theatre and opera, but have never previously encountered anything from her so utterly lacking in ideas.