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Tuesday 5 February 2013

Kasper Holten's new Eugene Onegin at the Royal Opera House


This month operatically inclined eyes in London are focussed on this production of Eugene Onegin, Kasper Holten's first with the company since joining, the clearest indication so far about what the future may hold for the Royal Opera House over the next decade or so - not only will he direct a lot of the major productions, but he will select directors too, so a lot rides on his tastes. I don't think anyone would be so crass as to say that this opera production will provide definitive answers, but interest is nevertheless very high.

Almost immediately we realise that this is Regie theatre, albeit of a mild kind - costumes and sets look largely "period" where "period" means "generically 19th century". The curtain opens onto silence, the mature Tatyana rushing into an empty room, searching for a letter. When she reads it, the music starts - the music is her memories flooding back to her. Onegin enters and we later learn that this prelude occurs in Gremin's palace between Scenes 6 and 7 (i.e. after Onegin has shown up again and sent his letter to Tatyana and before the final confrontation) - the opera then is all the flash backs of these two characters.

Throughout the production, Holten changes how these memories are presented - sometimes it is simply the characters singing their lines with essentially naturalistic acting, sometimes there is a (silent, younger) double also on stage who does the actions as the mature singer merely watches them presumably in a state of recall, sometimes it becomes even more unnaturalistic, and the younger double dances, illustrating the words of the singer, and sometimes the younger and older Tatyana actually interact. It all feels basically logically cogent in that it is never confusing, but I think the brain finds it hard to adjust to different modes of naturalism/unnaturalism in the same play without becoming slightly emotionally disengaged.

The result is interesting rather than moving. It took me a while to work out why. What all this intervention does, well meaning and sensitively done though it is, is that it changes the very finely tuned emotional arcs and tensions of the original story - all this dreaming and meta story telling changes the dynamics of every scene and it becomes hard to actually engage with the characters in a direct way. So for instance, Tatyana sings her letter scene looking at her silent younger self, observing and narrating what she must have been feeling at every moment. So it stops being a searingly intimate moment of personal revelation and an agonising leap of faith, and becomes instead a narrated recollection of a doomed moment of youthful folly. More damagingly, in the passionate climax, the singer Tatyana fantasizes about Onegin accepting her entreaty, and we see her dancer double wrapping herself round the double Onegin - logically we know that this is not really happening, but emotionally what registers is a collapse of the sexual tension as it is consummated in front of us. This is what I mean by changing the emotional arcs - the story loses its drive when these tensions are subverted in front of our eyes, and the result is a lack of emotional investment and then a loss of interest. This is just one example of this occurring in this production, but the same thing happens again and again. As another example, Lensky sings his aria whilst the older Onegin observes and then reaches out and hugs him as an act of wish fulfilment. Although this does nicely suggest the subtle homoerotic elements of the text, it also presents us with the negation of the emotional line that propels this scene forwards - the audience is at this stage always desperate for their reconciliation and this is what creates the tension and pathos of the scene. If we are given this visually, even if intellectually we understand that it is not happening "in real life" in the play, emotionally there is a collapse of tension because our wish is fulfilled.

It's well know that this is one of Holten's favourite operas, but in making these audience member wishes come true on stage, it negates the power of the drama. This is the crux of the production's problems I think.

In Holten's picture, Onegin's main characteristic is that he's young. Gone is the haughtiness and repression of traditional stagings, replaced instead by upturned collars, constant embarrassed faces* and hands in pockets. I'm not sure it worked. Yes he's a young character, but is that his most important or interesting feature? Is it the most expressive one? Is it enough for this complex character to only be that? Is it the best choice for this singer's talents, at this point in his career? It's not altogether obvious why Tatyana falls for him either, other than that when she dreams to the peasant songs in Scene I, she LITERALLY dreams of Onegin himself (it's acted out above the chorus, as a dream within a dream) so that later when she says, "it's him!", she means it literally.

Everyone is colour coded - Onegin wears a shabby blue velvet jacket, Lensky wears a greyish blue suit, Olga a mint green dress. Tatyana wears red (for passion), but it seems a bit incongruent that a shy introvert would choose to dress so boldly - yes it's a metaphor, but surely congruent characterisation has to come before symbolism! In the later two scenes in Gremin's palace she wears an icy white gown, but her petticoats which peek through remain red to suggest the passionate heart still beating beneath cooler, more mature exterior.

Despite my complaints about the effect of the directorial choices, mostly the direction is very detailed and it seems that Holten has thought about it all with great care. But there are clumsy moments. When Onegin and Lensky enter Olga and Lensky hold hands and have a little intimate moment. Twenty seconds later Onegin asks without irony which one Tatyana is. Often characters will walk offstage only to come on again immediately. The peasants stroll into the house unbidden whenever they have a song to sing. The set remains largely the same throughout, with projections layered on top that vary the atmosphere, but it feels rigid and unyielding in crowd scenes. One large scale directional decision is to split the action not into the traditional three acts, but into two parts instead: Scenes 1-4 (100 minutes) and Scenes 5-7 (50 minutes). It feels very long, and Tchaikovsky's music is dramatically constructed on too intimate a scale to support these massive durations.

One directorial choice that did ring true was Holten's decision to make Olga a much darker character than the one that is usually presented. Here she is not that interested in Lensky - their beautiful duet, traditionally the only unbridled happy emotion in the piece, was here reinterpreted as a one sided infatuation - when Olga sings "promised to each other since birth", it's clear that she feels trapped and unhappy. A painful and cruel bit of staging this, that really shocked and hit home. She is also very interested in and excited by Onegin, and so Lensky's complaints don't seem like the oversensitive insecurity that it is usually interpreted as. Lensky is a much less overwrought character as a result - less Werther, more Masetto.

Another shocker - after Gremin's paean to Tatyana's goodness, (and surprising knowledge of and anger at Onegin's transgressions) he bursts in to witness the final scene, and it's far from clear what the outcome will be for Tatyana, who collapses with her books as Onegin wanders listlessly away. Bleak and far from expected. But still not moving!

Musically I thought things mirrored the staging - everything is very competently thought out and considered, but the results are far from passionate. The two are obviously not unlinked as singers have to be inspired by the staging, but there's a reserve in everyone's performance that bespeaks a lack of spiritual engagement. Robin Ticciati's conducting is an intimate and sensitive affair, but feels a bit careful and a little too tentative to support the longer line of the harmony. He also doesn't linger or indulge himself, and while this brings a freshness, it also rushes over some of the scores most touching moments, and I yearned for a bit more romance and schmerz.

As Tatyana, Krassimira Stoyanova has all the notes and is a very good technician. The top is rather covered, but is accurate, and her pleasingly dark low notes are the result of some serious engagement of her chest register, not at all common in lyric sopranos. Being Bulgarian, she speaks perfect Russian and inflects the text nicely, but the voice doesn't have that last degree of specialness that would make this a truly memorable performance. Her acting is good, and she manages to convince as the young Tatyana.

Simon Keenlyside is also very good vocally, and of course technically he's a master, though he also seems somehow not in his element - I didn't feel that he was that engaged with his character, and it showed not just in the physical acting, but also in his vocal acting, which was rather unspecific and bland: not usually words you can apply to Keenlyside.

Elena Maximova's very dark voiced Olga will split opinion I think - the chest tones are formidable, but the sound is not for me very attractive overall. Pavol Breslik sings Lensky with excellent technique, but there's no excitement in the voice, partly because the top is too covered and the sound rather small. Kathleen Wilkinson's Filipyevna and Diana Montague's Larina are both acceptably sung and unremarkably acted. Everyone else falls into the same category (though I did like Jihoon Kim's rich voiced Zaretsky). In both the final dress and this the first night, the chorus frequently fell out of time with the orchestra, and generally seem a bit uncomfortable - it could be the language or it could be Ticciati's fast speeds.

On the one hand I want to say that it's not that bad, and is a coherent, thoughtful piece of Regie that is well sung and played. But on the other hand, surely an Onegin that doesn't move needs to be classified as a disaster, and we need to expect more of voices than mere accuracy. Some will no doubt find much to admire here, and it is thought provoking, but for me the concept, while clever, negates the emotion of the piece and without that, it ends up being a rather uninvolving night at the theatre.

*a friend humorously (and accurately) compared him to Tim from The Office.

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