Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

An English Winter Journey

Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.

History Repeating Itself: Prokofiev’s Semyon Kotko, Amsterdam Concertgebouw

A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.

L’amour de loin at the Metropolitan Opera

Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.

La finta giardiniera at the Royal College of Music

For an opera that has never quite made it over the threshold into the ‘canonical’, the adolescent Mozart’s La finta giardiniera has not done badly of late for productions in the UK. In 2014, Glyndebourne presented Frederic Wake-Walker’s take on the eighteen-year-old’s dramma giocoso. Wake-Walker turned the romantic shenanigans and skirmishes into a debate on the nature of reality, in which the director tore off layers of theatrical artifice in order to answer Auden’s rhetorical question, ‘O tell me the truth about love’.

Lust for Revenge: Barenboim and Herlitzius fire up Strauss’s Elektra in Berlin

As the German language describes so beautifully, a “Schrei aus tiefstem Herzen” was felt as Evelyn Herlitzius channelled an Elektra from the depths of her soul.

Semyon Bychkov heading to NYC and DC with Glanert and Mahler

Heading to N.Y.C and D.C. for its annual performances, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra invited Semyon Bychkov to return for his Mahler debut with the Fifth Symphony. Having recently returned from Vienna with praise for their rendition, the orchestra now presented it at their homebase.

Lost Stravinsky re-united with Rimsky-Korsakov, Gergiev, Mariinsky

Igor Stravinsky's lost Funeral Song, (Chante funèbre) op 5 conducted by Valery Gergiev at the Mariinsky in St Petersburg This extraordinary performance was infinitely more than an ordinary concert, even for a world premiere of an unknown work.

Philippe Jaroussky at the Wigmore Hall: Baroque cantatas by Telemann and J.S.Bach

On Tuesday evening this week, I found myself at The Actors Centre in London’s Covent Garden watching a performance of Unknowing, a dramatization of Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben and Dichterliebe (in a translation by David Parry, in which Matthew Monaghan directed a baritone and a soprano as they enacted a narrative of love, life and loss. Two days later at the Wigmore Hall I enjoyed a wonderful performance, reviewed here, by countertenor Philippe Jaroussky with Julien Chauvin’s Le Concert de la Loge, of cantatas by Telemann and J.S. Bach.

The new Queen of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

Here is one of the next new great conductors. That’s a bold statement, but even the L.A. Times agrees: Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla’s appointment “is the biggest news in the conducting world.” But Ms. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla will be getting a lot of weight on her shoulders.

Falstaff at Manitoba Opera

Manitoba Opera chose to open its 44th season by going for the belly laughs — literally — as it notably presented its inaugural production of Verdi’s Falstaff.

Gothic Schubert : Wigmore Hall, London

Macabre and moonstruck, Schubert as Goth, with Stuart Jackson, Marcus Farnsworth and James Baillieu at the Wigmore Hall. An exceptionally well-planned programme devised with erudition and wit, executed to equally high standards.

Rusalka, AZ Opera

On November 20, 2016, Arizona Opera completed its run of Antonín Dvořák’s fairy Tale opera, Rusalka. Loosely based on Hand Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, Joshua Borths staged it with common objects such as dining room chairs that could be found in the home of a child watching the story unfold.

First new Ring Cycle in 40 Years, Leipzig

Consistently overshadowed by the neighboring Bayreuth, the far less stuffy Oper Leipzig (Wagner’s birthplace) programmed after forty years their first complete Ring Cycle.

San Jose’s Beta-Carotene Rich Barber

You didn’t have to know the Bugs Bunny oeuvre to appreciate Opera San Jose’s enchanting Il barbiere di Sivigila, but it sure enhanced your experience if you did.

Manon Lescaut at Covent Garden

If there was ever any doubt that Puccini’s Manon is on a road to nowhere, then the closing image of Jonathan Kent’s 2014 production of Manon Lescaut (revived here for the first time, by Paul Higgins) leaves no uncertainty.

Fierce in War, dazzling in Peace: Joyce DiDonato at the Concertgebouw

Many opera singers are careful to maintain an air of political neutrality. Not so mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, who is outspoken about causes she holds dear. Her latest project, a very personal response to the 2015 terror attacks in Paris, puts her audience through the emotional wringer, but also showers them with musical rewards.

Simplicius Simplicissimus

I wonder if Karl Amadeus Hartmann saw something of himself in the young Simplicius Simplicissimus, the eponymous protagonist of his three-scene chamber opera of 1936. Simplicius is in a sort of ‘Holy Fool’ who manages to survive the violence and civil strife of the Thirty Years War (1618-48), largely through dumb chance, and whose truthful pronouncements fall upon the ears of the deluded and oppressive.

Lucia di Lammermoor at Lyric Opera of Chicago

For its second opera of the 2016-17 season Lyric Opera of Chicago has staged Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor in a production seen at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino and the Grand Théâtre de Genève.

Akhnaten Offers L A Operagoers Both Ear and Eye Candy

Akhnaten is the third in composer Philip Glass’s trilogy of operas about people who have made important contributions to society: Albert Einstein in science, Mahatma Gandhi in politics, and Akhnaten in religion. Glass’s three operas are: Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha, and Akhnaten.

Shakespeare in the Late Baroque - Bampton Classical Opera

Shakespeare re-imagined for the very Late Baroque, with Bampton Classical Opera at St John's Smith Square. "Shakespeare, Shakespeare, Shakespeare....the God of Our Idolatory". So wrote David Garrick in his Ode to Shakespeare (1759) through which the actor and showman marketed Shakespeare to new audiences, fanning the flames of "Bardolatory". All Europe was soon caught up in the frenzy.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

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.

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):