Archive for the ‘Eugene Onegin’ Category

Eugene Onegin: New York vs. Baden-Baden

March 28, 2010

I recently came across a sly and contemptuous text on Regie Theater and its origin. Coincidentally I read it at the time I was watching two different productions of Eugene Onegin, one by the Met and the other one by European Union Opera in Baden-Baden. Two  productions  were staged initially at around the same time, about 10 years ago. The conductors are Russian in both. In the Met it is the globe-trotting Valery Gergiev and the Baden-Baden production is under the baton of Gennady Rozhdestvensky. 

The Met production was first staged in 1997 (Ms. Karita Mattila as Tatiana and Mr. Thomas Hampson as Onegin) and revived in 2007, with the stellar cast: Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Onegin, Renée Fleming as Tatiana and Ramón Vargas as Lenski. None of them is known as a memorable actor, which proves true in this production too. They all sing well—Mr. Hvorostovsky because he could sing anything without any objection from anyone, but, as is not seldom the case, just short of mesmerizing, which is a pity because with his voice it is not fair that we remain not blown away by his singing. With a bit more personal presence he could do miracles. (personal message to Hvorostovsky: practicing some contact sport—kick-boxing comes to mind—may release or break the knot which makes him shy and closed on stage).  Then we may all rejoice in his unrestrained delivery. Just a personal gut impression. It was good to hear that Ms. Fleming did not get in too much trouble with murkiness of the lower tones this time, as she sometimes tends to sound hollow and with a dent when singing from the area between the chest and throat. The letter-writing scene she dramatically overstated from time to time. Tatiana is after all very young and in love, and not on the verge of suicide. Most genuine was Ramón Vargas whose self–lamenting solo was met with a warm applause. Ms. Elena Zaremba as her sister Olga did not evoke a young and cheerful person as she was supposed to. Her voice is too thick, exuding an overly bitter and dark flavour, so her ode to joy sounds like condemnation. Misfit for the character of young Olga.  Her appearance and hairdo could easily be of Olga’s grand granny. Ms. Zaremba’s mature and distinct facial features needed softening with hairstyle, makeup and costume to produce an effect adequate to the character of Olga and not an afternoon version of the Queen of Night. But whoever was in charge of shaping her up for the stage missed that. 

In the Baden-Baden production the singers are not mega stars, but chosen well for their roles. Ms. Orla Boylan as Tatiana may not be best physical match for Mr. Vladimir Gushchak as Onegin. But Ms. Orla Boylan as Tatiana soars and glides effortlessly and with emotional nuance and tremor which may be seen as a flow in her voice but, oh so well, suited for this role. Mr. Gluschak is maybe of limited expressiveness but his natural annoying arrogance comes in handy and balances out well with his correct but otherwise unremarkable singing. Ms. Ineke Vlogtman has natural nobility that serves well in the Larina role. Ms. Anna Burford is Olga dressed in yellow throughout and showing remarkable acting skills,  bringing forth fully the character of Olga. Ms. Katja Boos as Filipyevna couldn’t quite strike the right balance between her own age and the one suitable for the role. Her and Larina’s  costumes, though, may be teaching exhibits for costume students on how to accentuate with style and without imitation.

Whether Valery Gergiev did not have enough time to get the orchestra sound as he wished or not, may never be known. Met’s bonus material shows some of his attempts to explain that the orchestra is not a place for practicing democracy so that every string may exercise his right to be heard; that less is sometimes better; that “easy does it”; and so on, in his own words. Alas, the sound of the prelude of the Met production feels like a two-dimensional plane: up and down, left and right, compared to the sophisticated delicate nuancing under the baton of Gennady Rozhdestvensky, exuding magical elusive and cobweb like flavor of brooding melancholy, that comes to a listener from all directions with different intensity and voluptuousness. You feel the changing of the seasons as the years go by in the slow and uneventful life of a remote Russian village. Throughout the orchestra’s sound there is a mild curly streak of the Asian/Oriental mellow tone we might hear in the shepherd folk tunes of that part of the world. The richness of the orchestra sound, whether in nostalgic melodies or surging into a crescendo of drama, shows superiority and far greater sensibility on the side of Baden-Baden. Sorry Met, I have to get it of my chest.

Monsignor Triquet, as an entertainer who in the homes of then wealthy Russian aristocrats sings for supper, is a delicate visual task. It is a character dressed almost clownishly which was well understood and developed with stylish exaggeration in the Baden-Baden production,


whereas the Met produced a Triquet who takes himself seriously, resembling features of  anonymous character face, similar to mannequins or the faces on the packaging for man’s hair colouring. 

The episode with peasants and their folk songs is misunderstood in the Met production. It occupies an excess of time. It is portrayed with almost silly delight. These scenes throw into misbalance the main theme, which is a story of the seducer Onegin and Princess Tatiana, not about folk rites and songs. All of the folks people are dressed in some sort of  rag-bags of the lively colours evoking wet cement and dry mud…Tsk… tsk…tsk.

The episode with folk songs in Baden-Baden does not appear on the stage, which is an apt modification to emphasize the main story. The song is only heard, and it is heard from a considerable distance, which adds wonderfully to the entire spirit of melancholy and loneliness. 

Baden-Baden’s scene is simple small and white with an elaborate but delicate lighting suggesting summer with touches of bright yellow and red. The outdoors countryside is only gently hinted at, by wooden shavings sorted in a curved line along the back edge of the elevated stage tilted towards the audience. Behind and   below which is another invisible plane suggesting distance in a clever way so that the characters who arrive are first invisible, then you see only their heads etc. There is a large swing coming high from the top of the ceiling and a reclining chair with a sun umbrella, as well as two simple chairs for Larina and Filipyevna and an ordinary bucket.

This small picture is all I could find.


The overture and other instrumental passages are used on the stage to introduce the characters in their silent exchanges so we learn without a word that Olga is a mischief, that Tatiana is a gloomy dreamer etc.

A bare stage is a tricky place. When Peter Mussbach or Willy Decker uses it, the stage somehow does not feel empty.  My fellow Torontonian, Mr. Robert Carsen, responsible for the Met production, may have had better support of the costume and choreography teams in Venice when he was staging La Traviata, because the space there although on occasions bare did not come across as bare and vast as that which pervades the stage of his Eugene Onegin. The unfortunate effect with this stage is that it involves the whole height of the ceiling and at the bottom it ends in the straight rectangular lines of a box, producing an unpleasant effect as if the entire performance takes place at the bottom of a gigantic empty aquarium. The stage is covered in autumn leaves: wall-to-wall. (hard labour for those backstage workers of the Met spreading and shoving into bags the tons of leaves every Onegin night.) The other ornaments on the scene are four suspiciously authentic looking trunks of white birch trees. If these trunks are real, as I suspect they are, it is an environmental crime to kill these wonderful trees, and let’s make it abundantly clear, a slaughter not worthy of the art in which name it was committed. I suggest that this matter be investigated.

The furniture is boring, midway through any-style or no-style-at-all—a dining table in the safely chosen, vigourless, colour of everything and everyone else on the stage – brown. At least that is how it feels on DVD. It may be that the live impression was different.

Let the picture speak a thousand words…


It appears that in the Met production little attention was given to the scene movements either, except when a dancing part was outsourced to the professionals. All the bets are on the lighting, which in return tirelessly projects every imaginable shade of the spectrum on the back wall.

It appears that the Met costume designer couldn’t be bothered with the episode role’s costumes, so he or she probably short-noticed a student, who in return googled here and there and came up with a stitched floral application on the Filipyevna’s apron but did not have time for the apron itself, and then just arbitrarily threw in some brown Scottish tartan instead, which combined with a patterned shirt shows homework done in haste. The costumes came with a staffing of the singers into stereotype babushkas and nanushkas with well- endowed bosoms, large hips and dropped shoulders. In neglecting the costumes of the episode roles Onegin’s costume appears overdone and makes him look like an opulent Ringmaster rather than a dandy aristocrat.  The costume designer in Baden-Baden chose colours following the main emotion associated with the character and scene; the design is gentle to the natural curves of the singers shaping their bodies according to the age, status and the temperament of the role. Clothing each character in apparently simple apparel, reveals on closer inspection meticulous attention to detail that treats the natural figures of the singers with grace and dignity. Of course, they are stylized and simplified from the original time period beyond recognition. Opera need not necessarily teach you a lesson in ethnography or how to cook a fruit preserve.

We may need more than one book to show that Tatiana loves reading, which is so aptly applied in Baden-Baden. 

Special cum laude mention goes to Markus Meyer for the set and costume design, also lighting designer Urlich Schneider, choreographer Denni Sayers, and first and foremost stage director Nicolaus Lehnhoff, may his name stand bold for this superb Baden-Baden production.