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Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky
07 Jun 2010

Tchaikowsky Trilogy in Lyon

In Europe only a few theater stage directors are operatically more famous than Peter Stein (pronounced Pay-tear), to mention Sir Peter Hall, Patrice Chereau and Giorgio Strehler as examples.

Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin; Mazeppa; Pique Dame

Eugene Onegin — Onegin: Alexy Markov; Tatiana: Olga Mykytenko; Lenski: Edgaras Montvidas; Olga: Elena Maximova; Prince Gremin: Michail Schelomianski; Larina Marianna: Tarasova; Filipievna: Margarita Nekrasova; Mr. Triquet: Jeff Martin; Zaretski: Alexey Tikhormirov; A captain: Paolo Stupenengo; A peasant: Fabrice Constans. Conductor: Kirill Petrenko. Mise en scène: Peter Stein. Scenery: Ferdinand Wögerbauer. Costumes: Anna Maria Neinreich. Lights: Duane Schuler. Choreography: Lynne Hockney.

Mazeppa — Mazeppa: Nikolaï Putilin; Kotchoubeï: Anatoli Kotscherga; Liioubov: Marianna Tarasova; Maria: Olga Guryakova; Andreï: Misha Didyk; Orlik: Alexy Tikhomirov; Iskra: Edgaras Montvidas; A Drunk Cosaque: Jeff Martin. Chorus and Orchestra Opéra de Lyon. Conductor: Kirill Petrenko. Mise en scène: Peter Stein. Scenery: Ferdinand Wögerbauer. Costumes: Anna Maria Heinreidch. Lighting: Duane Schuler.

Pique Dame — Hermann: Misha Didyk; Tomski: Nikolai Putilin; Eletski: Alexey Markov; Tchekalinsky: Jeff Martin; Sourine: Alexey Tikhomirov; La Comtesse: Marianna Tarasova; Lisa: Olga Guryakova; Pauline: Elena Maximova; Governess: Margarita Nekrasova; Tchaplitsky: Didier Roussel; Naroumov: Paolo Stupenengo; Master of Ceremonies Brian Bruce; Macha: Lou. Orchestra, Chorus and Children's Chorus of the Opéra de Lyon. Conductor: Kirill Petrenko. Mise en scène: Peter Stein. Scenery: Ferdinand Wögerbauer. Costumes: Anna Maria Heinreich. Lumières: Duane Schuler.


These directors made their primary operatic contributions in the previous century. Mr. Stein too made forays into opera back then (notably a hugely successful Otello at Welsh National Opera in 1986 and a notoriously unsuccessful Das Rheingold at the Paris Opera also in the ’80’s), but his major explorations of the genre have occurred in this first decade of the new century, and at the Opéra National de Lyon.

Not to forego mentioning Boris Godunov coming this fall at the Met.

Besides Pelleas et Melisande, Falstaff and Lulu in Lyon Mr. Stein has staged the three primary Tchaikowsky operas in the intimate Opéra Nouvel [named after its architect Jean Nouvel] — Mazeppa in 2006, Eugene Onegin in 2007 and Pique Dame in 2008. Just now these thrilling operas have had cyclic performances as a trilogy, certainly the crown of the France wide, year long celebration of Russian art.

Peter Stein is a consummately musical director. In the most pristine moments of his stagings (at the premieres, less so in these revivals) the staging detail is so precise that even the smallest motion of a hand resonates musically, the spacial relationships between two (or more) singers are so precisely defined that musical tensions are held at their maximum. Movement is abstracted and directional, like musical line.

Mr. Stein ignores the presence of an audience, creating a fourth wall in his performing space, thus allowing a singer to move down stage center and face this wall, privately voicing his or her emotions with no consciousness that this wall is transparent. Peter Stein’s stage world is complete in itself. In its most pristine form you, the audience witness a dramatic privacy, immediate in its emotional import and highly distilled in its expression. At once cold and hot. Riveting.

Designer Ferdinand Wôgerbauer, longtime Peter Stein scenic collaborator, created the physical stages for the trilogy, spaces that at first seem like comic book frames in their austerity, but realized so that the singer is the primary shape on the stage, and therefore the single expressive element. The space delineates a location and its boundaries but does not compete with a singer’s presence or his words or movements by describing a surrounding. Though when, rarely, there is furniture or an implement it is very real, because the singer is real.

Costume collaborator Anne Marie Heinreich contributes to the impression of comic book vignette by her use of bold primary color, in shapes that are large, and always specifically evocative of period. Of Peter Stein’s collaborators only American lighting designer Duane Schuler does not come from theater, his provenance is big-time opera. Lighting is crucial in the Peter Stein opera language because the singer or singers are all there is — though they are small they must be big, resonating in light. Mr. Schuler has mastered the technic of projecting Mr. Stein’s tiny visual frames onto the operatic scale.

Peter Stein’s musical collaborator for the trilogy is conductor Kirill Petrenko. Russian born, Viennese trained Mo. Petrenko is a consummately theatrical musician, magnifying the smallest instrumental details into revelations of emotional color, his orchestra becoming a raw nerve ending in direct contact with Peter Stein’s tense visual frames. Mo. Petrenko supplies the driven tempos that crucially underpin the careful progression of these frames. The inspired Petrenko/Stein connection illuminates the supercharged Tchaikowsky genius, respectively heating it up and cooling it down. [N.B. Petrenko will not conduct the Met Boris (entrusted to Gergiev), contenting himself, surely, with a Bayreuth Ring in 2013. Ironically Stein was offered a Bayreuth Ring in 1976, but the Wagners refused to uncover the pit, so it went to Chereau].

Comic book is an imperfect metaphor since the Tchaikowsky operas do not tell simple stories. In fact they do not tell stories at all since Tchaikowsky assumes that we, as all good Russians already know these famous Pushkin stories. Tchaikowsky drops us into the crucial scenes of these stories, just when something horrible is about to happen — he calls them lyric scenes rather than operas.

Taken in sequence the first of the trilogy is Onegin, a domestic comedy that goes bad. Mazeppa follows, an epic tale that clothes wrenching familial concerns, and finally Pique Dame is a horror opera, pure Guignol. Each has one or more suicides (Maria in Tchaikowsky’s original Mazeppa version kills herself), a gambler who loses, a bloody fight between two men, and a woman who loses love and life (Tatiana succumbs to the bourgeoisie, a synonym of death in many circles then [and now]).

With its two sets of lovers Eugene Onegin (1879) is like Puccini’s La Boheme (1898), but Puccini’s lovers are so busy dealing with immediate crises that there is little psychology and no philosophy. The miracle of Tchaikowsky is that within heightened emotional immediacy we still participate intellectually — we struggle to understand why. The why can be psychological, political or philosophical, or all three. In a Peter Stein production we feel and we understand these sometimes indefinable depths to a shattering degree.

Just now in Lyon (May 14) the focus was on Lenski, Lithuanian tenor Edgaras Montvidas, whose youth, immediacy of voice and tall physical stature commanded our attention, and gave us the vibrancy of young life and love. Onegin, Russian baritone Alexey Markov, was but the motor of the scenes, driving Lenski to his death and Tatiana to her unenviable bourgeois fate (surely soon to join Desperate Housewives). Onegin was little more than a symptom of Russian social malaise, who had finally just a glimpse of an overpowering primal emotion before he too was crushed by the dullness of bourgeois life. Not that we cared as Tchaikowsky had given him little to sing.

Tatiana’s letter scene resonated with very real adolescent energy bouncing between obsession and determination, splendidly realized by Ukrainian soprano Olga Mykytenko to brilliant musical detail from Mo. Petrenko’s pit. Gremin’s ball was a brisk Polonaise made leaden by the blank stares of its dancers through Peter Stein’s fourth wall. Tatiana, now the Prince’s wife, had become matronly, her youthful dreams lost to the weight of social responsibility. She wreaked her revenge with little regret. The curtain fell as the tall, handsome, dull, vocally lackluster Prince Gremin, Russian bass Michail Schelomianski, towered over Onegin, mocking his futile gesture.

If Eugene Onegin is the thirty-nine year old Tchaikowsky at his most inspired, Mazeppa found the forty-four year old composer frustrated by a problematic libretto of his own making. Peter Stein took it all at face value, knowing that epic is episodic and that Puskin’s epic had been left in the dust anyway, so he did his best. This 2006 production then traveled to the Edinburgh Festival where only the most prestigious production are hosted.

Mazeppa is the Ukrainian general who betrayed Peter the Great, but it didn’t matter because the Russians whipped the Swedes at the battle of Poltava, so Mazeppa, a Swedish ally, lost his gamble to liberate the Ukraine from Russian rule. Tchaikowsky took care of all this in a symphonic interlude, and Peter Stein dismissed it by projecting a huge battle painting (with a heavy gold frame) in commemoration of this momentous bit of history.

Tchaikowsky’s muse was a hopeless one, here the eighteen year-old daughter of a rich Ukrainian is smitten by an older man, General Mazeppa, who unlike the much younger Onegin, requites her love, smitten himself. The rich Ukrainian and his wife are most unhappy to lose their beautiful daughter to this treacherous old man.

There were some great scenes (May 13). The rich Ukrainian had a pow wow with his friends where they decided to take a gamble — if they betrayed Mazeppa’s intentions to Peter, maybe Peter would dispose of Mazeppa, thereby liberating his daughter. Her childhood lover, Andrei, is the ardent messenger of this intelligence to Peter (Russian tenor Misha Didyk is always ardent to the hilt). The mother, seated among the women, was artfully picked out by beautiful light to deliver her plea (though the mother, Russian mezzo Marianna Tarasova, soon lost her voice so she did not present herself at the curtain calls).

Vintage Peter Stein (after Onegin and Pique Dame we are now experts) was the confrontation between the daughter Maria, beautifully sung by Russian soprano Olga Guryakova (who moved her large voice quite effectively in pianissimo singing) and Mazeppa, sung by Siberian baritone Nikolai Putilin, physically a cross between Robert E. Lee and Napoleon. This balcony scene had no movement, save small motions of hands in the tense distances between its protagonists, with eloquent and elegant music soaring from Mo. Petrenko’s pit.

Well, Mazeppa arrested the rich Ukrainian and the messenger (we assumed) and then had no choice but to behead them, but not before the disheveled prisoners sang a prayer. For some reason this scene evoked a chorus of boos from the audience. As it turned out it was not the messenger (Misha Didyk) who was beheaded though in the distressed costume it could have been, but a minor character (Iskra) sung by Edgaras Montvidas, resurrected the very next night as our superb Lenski (only of course to die again).

Death scenes must always be snowy in Russia. Maria’s childhood lover, Andrei (the ardent Mr. Didyk) confused us (we thought he was dead) by appearing on a snowy hillside where Mazeppa soon passed fleeing Poltava (the real Poltava battle was fought in scorching heat). Mazeppa thwarts Andrei’s pathetic attempt at revenge, and Andrei dies in the now mad Maria’s arms though she has not the foggiest idea who he is. Likewise Lenski — once shot dead he very dramatically and very slowly slid down a very steep snow covered slope, and Liza in Pique Dame threw herself into the Neva with snow flying everywhere, though it took awhile.

The big scene was the lament of Kotchoubei (the rich Ukrainian) tortured in his prison cell. Sung by Ukrainian bass Anatoli Kotscherga (the only surviving member of the original cast) in a stage frame greatly contracted into a narrow vertical slit — a brilliant scenic resolution. Mr. Kotchoubei is basically a character singer whose huge, bear-like physical presence and inelegant vocal delivery evoke a comic presence. This casting will have been Peter Stein’s, and perhaps it was Mr. Stein’s way of calling attention to the theatrical precariousness of Mazeppa. Mr. Stein can be very subtle, so just maybe.

Or maybe it was too much Tchaikowsky in one sitting, or too much Peter Stein. Finally it was all wonderful, especially the high level, dedicated singing actors, the vision and technique of a master director, and above all else, a dynamite conductor.

For Peter Stein’s Pique Dame, please see my review of a performance in 2008, now archived on my website

Michael Milenski

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