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A. S. Pushkin
02 Mar 2013

Eugene Onegin, Royal Opera

When opera companies arrange their seasonal schedules, one wonders how much thought they give to Valentine’s Day. If it falls in the midweek, it is potentially a very propitious day for getting people out: that is, if the opera is right.

Eugene Onegin, Royal Opera

A review by David Chandler

Above: A. S. Pushkin


The Royal Opera House opted for Tchaikovsky’s romantic masterpiece, Eugene Onegin, and in my view got it both right and wrong. They got it right in that they managed to pack the house out even at full prices: could any opera composed in the last fifty years have achieved as much? Full prices = expensive: I paid £150 for what my ticket amusingly described as a “Tall Loose Seat” at the back of the Grand Tier. I was sitting on a glorified bar stool – one understands why they’re not called “Loose Stools” of course –and could see only 90% of the stage.

But they got it wrong in that they drew out very few young, or even youngish, couples on one of the great “date nights” of the year, a night when a bit of extravagance is widely felt to be allowable. It would certainly be an extravagance to most people, when a Valentine’s evening of this description, with dinner and drinks, would likely cost £400 or more. But there are plenty of young couples with a good deal of disposable income in the London area: they just weren’t choosing to see Eugene Onegin. The average age of the audience must have been on the less desirable side of 60. The stalls were a sea of white, grey and silver hair scattered with islands of exposed scalp. The overwhelming impression was that these were mostly moneyed, retired couples out for a treat on their umpteenth Valentine’s Day together and that they had long since done with holding hands and pursuing a feeling of romantic intimacy in the face of great art.

I have nothing against older people enjoying opera and intend myself to enjoy it for as long as I can. And it is admittedly often difficult to get young people enthused about the art form. But things can only get worse if, as I felt on 14 February, companies like the Royal Opera , seeing where the economic winds are blowing, start marketing their product specifically toward their older clientele. One of the first full-page ads in the Eugene Onegin programme was for Estée Lauder’s Re-Nutriv, the “Ultimate Lift Age-Correcting Crème.”Kasper Holten’s controversial production of the opera itself seemed just as aware of who was likely to be reading the programmes.

The keynote of the new production, as most reviewers have noted, is memory. As the programme explains, “Kasper Holten’s production focuses on the power of memory, on how it shapes us and how we gain self-knowledge through experience. The stage becomes increasingly full of objects symbolic for Tatyana and Onegin as they grow up and finally realize that they can never return to their past lives.” That’s oddly worded, and seems more a comment on the general human condition than on the psychological intricacies of the Pushkin-Tchaikovsky story, which is much more about the possibility or not of having a second chance to go down a road not taken than about a desired return to a “past life” (which “past life” are Onegin and Tatyana wanting to return to, we should ask).

Adrian Mourby’s programme essay, “Stepping Through the Memory Door,” more overtly attempts to link the opera to the general human condition of getting older. He draws on Lockean ideas of personal identity as constituted by memory, but gives them a depressingly bleak interpretation: “we reach the end of our lives … as the sum total, not just of our memories but of the mistakes we have made. As we go through life we accrete more and more layers, and our decisions hem us in until we are trapped in a present we never chose, unable to see the person we once had the potential to be.”Who is he talking about here? The danger of “middle age,” Mourby proceeds to moralise, is that an encounter “with someone who shared our youth” can lead us to a delusive notion that we can break free: “The curse of Friends Reunited that has blighted many modern marriages is much more than an opportunity for consummating youthful relationships in adulterous middle age; it is about the impact that people from the past have on our younger selves, selves that have been all but lost under the layers of mistakes and compromises down the years.” If anyone gets round to writing an opera about Prince Charles and his two wives, Mourby’s essay can be reprinted as a guide to some of the issues involved in that unsavoury piece of royal history. But it is an odd commentary on the story of Tchaikovsky’s teenage Tatyana, and one cannot help feeling that Mourby is going much too far in trying to make Eugene Onegin artificially RELEVANT to ROH’s aging patrons who are, ipso facto, stereotyped as romantically unfulfilled.

I’ll come to the question of whether these ideas are actually represented in Holten’s production in a moment. First, it is worth making a comparison between the view of life set out here and that expressed so successfully in Mamma Mia!, the very popular musical playing year after year not far from the Royal Opera House. Mamma Mia! unquestionablyis about middle-aged people, and it unquestionably attracts a much younger audience. In fact, it’s a safe bet that a lot more hand-holding was going on there on 14 February. I don’t believe this is simply a matter of cost. Mamma Mia!, written by a single mother, is about mistakes and misunderstandings, and it is about losing touch with younger selves, but it is also about the power of love to overcome these things and the human potential for renewal. This is what young people want to believe in, and good for them. They know, of course, that not every love story ends happily, but even the tragic ones have something to say about how wonderful love is, something to teach about the value of getting it right, and I simply cannot imagine happy young couples subscribing to the very cynical Everyman interpretation of Eugene Onegin offered by Mourby – especially on Valentine’s Day!

The really distinctive feature of Holten’s production, as all the critics have noted, is that he introduces younger versions of Tatyana and Onegin as mime roles. The critical reaction to this has been almost uniformly negative: the addition of new “characters” has been judged as either confusing the story or adding an unwanted and unnecessary layer of psychological “interpretation.” But I have not read any discussion of how this device alters the audience’s relationship to the story. Yet alter it it surely does, for by introducing young versions of characters normally imagined as young anyway, the production inevitably makes the singing Tatyana and Onegin seem much older. The casting of Krassimira Stoyanova and Simon Keenlyside as the two protagonists reinforced this impression: neither, to put it bluntly, looked like a young lover. Mourby’s essay, whatever its relevance to Tchaikovsky’s opera, is relevant to this production.

In Holten’s production, Tatyana and Onegin spend a good deal of time looking at their own younger selves; in fact in key scenes, like the writing of Tatyana’s letter and the fighting of the duel, it is the younger selves who actually perform the actions. These younger selves, performed by Vigdis Hentze Olsen and Thom Rackett, both of whom have a background in dance, were certainly very much worth looking at, especially Olsen, with her beautiful, sinuous and expressive form doing full justice to some intense choreography. She could easily have passed for Stoyanova’s daughter, and surely prompted many audience reflections on the vulnerability of beauty to time, with or without “Age-Correcting Crème.” The net result was that an audience of people with an average age of about 60 were looking at protagonists who appeared to be about 40, who were in turn looking at younger versions of themselves who appeared to be about 20: a sort of theatrical variation on the Droste effect. There was something decidedly retrospective and distancing about this, with youthful passion being mediated to an older audience who might have plenty of money but are nevertheless, in Mourby’s assessment, trapped on the wrong side of a mid-life crisis.

By the end of the opera the younger selves had been put away for all practical purposes. After her rejection by Onegin, the younger Tatyana retreated into a hollow place in one of the three pillars that bestrode the stage, where she remained visible through the ball scene (it had previously been unclear why two of the three had these hollow compartments). It was the kind of thing Virginia Woolf might have imagined for one of her female characters, and appeared to represent a sort of grave for the younger, truer self. I found it the most visually arresting moment in the production, and one that summed up what Holten was doing with the story. This Eugene Onegin is not so much about youth as about mid-life crisis, not so much about the thrill of living and feeling as about death in life,not so much about love as about troubling memories of it from long ago.

Any production of a classic opera that makes us think about it anew is to be welcomed, and I found much of interest in Holten’s Eugene Onegin. But, as one lady indignantly announced in the cloakroom afterwards, “it’s not THE opera [Tchaikovsky imagined],” and it seemed, at least in the context of Valentine’s Day, to be too obviously pitched to an aging audience stereotyped as unfulfilled and no longer able to engage directly with youthful passion. Much as I prefer Tchaikovsky’s music to ABBA’s, if I was young and in love I’d much rather have had a pair of tickets for Mamma Mia! on 14 February.

David Chandler

Cast and production information

Tatyana: Krassimira Stoyanova; young Tatyana: Vigdis Hentze Olsen; Eugene Onegin: Simon Keenlyside; young Onegin: Thom Rackett; Lensky: Pavol Breslik; Olga: Elena Maximova; Prince Gremin: Peter Rose; Madame Larina: Diana Montague; Monsieur Triquet: Christophe Mortagne; Filipyevna: Kathleen Wilkinson; Zaretsky: Jihoon Kim; Captain: Michel de Souza; conductor: Robin Ticciati; director: Kasper Holten; set designs: Mia Stensgaard; costume designs: Katrina Lindsay; lighting design: Leo Warner. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 14 February 2013.

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