Wiener Staatsoper Review: Eugene Onegin

This marked my first foray into live Russian opera. I performed in Smetana's Czech The Bartered Bride, though the text was sung in English. Yesterday I had the opportunity to see Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin (Евгений Онегин/Yevgény Onégin). Unfortunately, I found the performance to be, overall, relatively emotionally flat, saved in part by an outstanding performance by Pavol Breslik as Lensky in the second act.

First, general information and synopsis followed by cast list:


|Peter I. Tschaikowski
  • Louis Langrée | Dirigent
  • Falk Richter | Regie
  • Katrin Hoffmann | Bühne
  • Martin Kraemer | Kostüme
  • Joanna Dudley | Choreographie
  • Carsten Sander | Licht
  • Shugo Ikoh | Regieassistenz
  • Agnes Hasun | Bühnenbildasistenz
  • Olga Guryakova | Tatjana, Tochter von Larina
  • Markus Eiche | Eugen Onegin
  • Pavol Breslik | Lensky, Dichter
  • Ain Anger | Fürst Gremin
  • Nadia Krasteva | Olga
  • Monika Bohinec | Larina
  • Aura Twarowska | Filipjewna
  • Marcus Pelz | Hauptmann
  • Marcus Pelz | Saretzki
  • Norbert Ernst | Triquet
  • Oleg Zalytskiy | Vorsänger

  • A look at the set/staging design in one of the general crowd scenes.
    The set, and to some extent the staging, for this production of Eugene Onegin was by far the most avantgarde I've seen at the Wiener Staatsoper. Throughout the show solid black legs and a black background of indeterminate depth acted as a foil for often white foreground where the action occurred. Most set pieces actually on stage were either black or reminiscent of clear blocks of ice. Except in the duel scene and the (re)introduction of Tatyana to Onegin in the third act, every scene also included a curtain of falling snow, highlighted with heavy white lighting, behind the foreground action but in front of the deep blackness. The last unusual element was the use of supernumeraries (possibly dancers) garbed in deep blue almost as set pieces, standing in embraces in back of the action. The combination of these factors gave me no definite sense of purpose. Despite that, it did give an overall atmosphere of otherworldliness. The set almost seemed to say "This happened in the remote, frigid country of the Russian steppes, yet even here, or perhaps particularly here, love, loss, tragedy, and death flower in the most acute way."
With the chorus and dancers clad in the deep blue hue that barely contrasted with the background, the main objective of the costuming of more important characters was to make them pop against the dark montage behind them. In the photo above, Larina's dress demonstrates this principle. Throughout, Olga, Larina, and Tatyana were dressed in bright shades of blue, red, pink, or white. The nurse and Lensky contrasted less, but their browns and greys respectively still shone against the darkness behind them. Onegin and Gremin were dressed darkly, but with suits that were extravagant and much more ornate than the demure drab of the chorus.

I am, in many ways, a traditionalist when it comes to design for operas. I like period costuming, for instance. That said, I quite appreciated this design for Eugene Onegin for the simple reason that it was stunningly beautiful. It was a piece of art in its own right. Unfortunately, complaints about a set are easily bypassed by great singing and passionate acting, but not so easily does the formula work the other way around. I want to acknowledge just how difficult Tchaikovsky's music is to sing and how hard the singers have to work just to sing through the music. Unfortunately, however, in this production I felt that the majority of the singers, while acting and certainly comprehending the emotions in the music, were not able to communicate those emotions to the audience.

Norbert Ernst as Triquet was actually one of the most believable and honest characters. His overwrought, ridiculous French serenade of Tatyana in the second act added just a dash of comedy before one of the most dramatic and heart-wrenching moments of the opera. Nonetheless, his joking compliments, in perfectly over-accented character tenor tone, were almost cruel in the face of the two true loves about to be crushed. The only thing distracting from his effective performance was his odd resemblance of Dustin Hoffman (I jest).

Aura Twarowska as the nurse was effective but decidedly detached from her charge. She seemed to be distant from Tatyana. While it is an understandable character and/or directorial choice to make her a distracted, tired old woman (some of Konstantin Shilovsky's lyrics suggest this, even), I couldn't help but feel that a more compelling choice would have been to either support Tatyana avidly or to tentatively fear her passions. Nonetheless, the singing was smooth and easy on the ears.

Monika Bohinec brought a deep, rich sound to the role of Larina, oddly almost more full than the theoretically deeper role of Olga. I would lump her performance into the category of unimaginative but for the fact that it seems to me that Tchaikovsky did not give her a whole lot with which to work. She facilitates the meeting and courting that goes on for her daughters, but does not really play a dynamic role in effecting the story. Ain Anger did not impress me immediately as Prince Gremin. Upon reflection however, I realized that he understood perfectly the emotions and the characterization of the role. His deep bass voice, a little bit gruff, radiated absolute assuredness. His singing both in tone and in ease of production, was eminently calm. At first I took this to mean he didn't love Tatyana. It later occurred to me however that it represents beautifully that while she loves Onegin, Tatyana has dedicated her life and love to Gremin, and he is so certain in her rock solid faith, and Gremin's love is so deep a connection just between him and Tatyana, that he needn't overplay it while talking to Onegin.

Olga Guryakova I found to have a somewhat unusual form of inconsistency. As I said above, any performer realistically tackling these leading roles deserves respect. Nonetheless, I felt as though Guryakova kept trying to gather space and resonance as she began each phrase, not blossoming until part way through the phrase. It wasn't that she was inconsistent from one scene to another, as is not that uncommon in an opera performance, but moment to moment. The Letter Scene, for instance, was moving, but only in a veiled, distant sort of way, though the piece is, of course, brutally hard. It was clear she understood the role. Indeed, Guryakova acted it well, moving from the first blush of love to the pain of loss to her resolve in the final act, but I felt removed from the performance.

Markus Eiche starred in the title role of Eugene Onegin. Unlike Guryakova, his vocal performance did not alter throughout the show and he looked the part. Indeed, the tone was very appropriate for Russian repertoire. Eiche possesses a steely baritone capable of reaching both the highs and lows of extended Romantic baritone range. His voice was not rough or strident, but had an unusually metallic quality. Still, I felt it could have used more dynamic variation. At moments when the orchestra was light beneath him, he maintained a consistent mf/f. Unfortunately, at the climactic points, the voice wasn't able to carry over the orchestra. The allowance must be made, of course, that Tchaikovsky employs a large orchestra and does force the singer to project over the entire orchestra at times. That said, if Eiche could perhaps have been more tender with certain passages and reserved his full power for the most dramatic moments of the piece. It felt as though he went through the motions of the acting. Granted, Onegin's first meeting with Tatyana is unclear, anyway, but even here I missed a definite decision on whether Onegin truly spurns her or does so only out of custom. This made his later jealousy at the party seem spontaneous and baseless. His expression of love in the third act was better, but would have been stronger if we had more from the previous two acts to which to relate it.

Incredible night for Mr. Breslik
I saw Pavol Breslik last Sunday as Don Ottavio in the Wiener Staatsoper's production of Mozart's Don Giovanni. For that, I gave him a relatively critical review. I noted positively that his acting was sincere, his coloratura and comprehension of the music clean, and that he possessed a fundamentally beautiful voice. My complaint was that he seemed to be singing in two different styles: distinctly Mozartean beneath the passaggio, and distinctly Romantic in a heavier style once he popped into it. I said then that I would love to hear him sticking to one style to let his beautiful voice shine through. In the role of Lensky he did exactly that. He was emotive throughout his performance, exuding passion and love for Olga every moment he was with her. His enthusiasm radiated to the audience. When faced in the second act by Olga's relatively small betrayal Breslik believably played the part of a man whose jealousy is driven by inescapable passion. His voice was clean, pure, and resonant, sitting firmly forward with ample squillo. He had the unusual combination of lightness and ease combined with unexpected vocal heft. The finale of Act II, Scene i sizzled as Breslik decried Onegin, ravaged Olga's hopes of seeing him again, and prepared for his moment of truth in the coming scene. His Bb at the end of the scene was scintillating, and it was clear he found the note and held it longer than expected, looking down at the conductor and daring him to go on. His "Kuda, kuda" reflected this passion, and when he did prepare to duel Onegin, the sudden lack of passion, the dejectedness, was all the more effective. Breslik's outstanding performance gives me a lasting impression of the drama and the tragedy in Eugene Onegin, lifting a cast with superb emotionalism I would not otherwise have expected.


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