Sunday, 25 March 2012

Sensation but no scandal - Munich Eugene Onegin

Near hysteria in some circles over Munich Opera's Tchaikovsky Eugene Onegin, the notorious "Brokeback Mountain" production. Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised given that some audiences think Dvořák based Rusalka on The Little Mermaid.  But the production isn't scandalous, unless you're disturbed by homosexuality (and alas, many people are). On the contrary, this Eugene Onegin is thought provoking. Which to many is the biggest danger of all.

Kryzysztov Warlikowski and his set designer Malgorzata Szczescinak scare away the easily scandalized with a luridly psychedelic first act. But as Anna Netrebko says "I'm from Krasnodar where everything's so grey. We need bright colours".  Life in this provincial community is drab but the locals cheer themselves up by dressing up and having parties. Like the Larin community, they're in a time warp but too unworldy to know. The 1970's costumes evoke a period where people conformed, even when they thought they were hip. Although we don't see trees and nature, it must be Spring since the locals are enacting a kind of mating ritual. Girls preen like exotic birds, ogling the boys. The text keeps referring to marriage, as the basis of social order. So we don't see cartoon Russian caricatures? Instead, we get to see the people on the estate as human beings.

Tatiana (Ekaterina Scherbachenko) stands out even more as an individual than if she were styled in white dimity. The other women exaggerate their femininity, but Tatiana appears in blouse and trousers. It's not just that she reads and dreams, she's fundamentally not part of the pack. Larina (Heike Grotzinger) is particularly moving because she's not idealized Happy Mum, but a faded former beauty, keeping up pretences. Larina and Tatiana are personalities. Olga (Alisa Kolosova) is blandness in big wig and silly dress. She doesn't get to sing much because she has so little to say for herself. Tchaikovsky disappears her as soon as she doesn't fit the narrative.

This set makes you care about the people. In their cheap, tawdry finery they're trying to make something of their lives. The effemininate MC and the tacky male strippers - is this the best life offers these poor souls? And yet like millions of women they settle for what they can. This Eugene Onegin is about a whole lot more than the sexuality of the two men. The tragedy is far wider.

When Tatiana is alone, the gaudy set disaapears, replaced by atmospheric blueness. This austerity reflects her true character, When she writes the letter, she strips down, just as she's stripping off convention and propriety. Nice girls don't write compromisng letters to strange men, but Tatiana can see no other escape. Her long monolgue is directed with great subtlety. Scherbachenko moves with each nuance in the music, expressing it through her body as well as her voice. This is Regie made by someone who understands music, text and meaning.

Tchaikovsky makes a point of Lensky and Olga having been childhood friends. She's clearly less of a challenge than Tatiana, and we know from Kibbutzers that people raised as siblings often don't marry. Pavol Breslik is an outstanding Lensky. He sings with gravity and colour, so he doesn't feel like a baby-faced ingenue but more like a real man. Interestingly, when Breslik has to throw dopey kisses at Olga, Scherbachenko stand between them her features sharpened with contempt.  Tatiana's smart enough to size Lensky up, but even she gets Onegin wrong. Just as Taiana decides Onegin should be what she thinks he is, Lensky thinks Olga should be what he wants, even after he's dead.

There's a lot of dance in this opera, but Warlikowski understands that it's also in the singing parts. Again and again, pairings and reversals, carefully blocked movements and images. Scherbachenko and Onegin (Simon Keenlyside) waltz as if they're stalking each other. Later the scene between Onegin, Tatiana and Gremin (Ain Anger) is also tautly choreographed to express the tension in their relationships. Anger also plays Saretski, the second during the duel. It's not accidental. Warlikowski doesn't treat Gremin as plot device but makes the character potent, and provocative, in every way. Some Gremins are so geriatric that Onegin only has to wait til he drops dead. This Gremin strokes Tatiana's feet and legs. Thus when Onegin realizes that he's lost Tatiana, the element of sexual rivalry makes the tragedy more intense.

Significantly, Tchaikovsky doesn't write all that much for Onegin to sing, reserving the big arias for Tatiana and Lensky. Onegin is the man onto whom they project themselves. Both are jealous where he's concerned. Onegin's emotionally honest. He doesn't let Tatiana draw him into her plans, but neither does he denounce her publicly (which would have ruined her). Lensky, though, is more difficult to read. He and Onegin have been best friends for years, so how come he gets so upset by Onegin paying attention to Olga? Why is he willing to risk his life, and his friend's life, for a fairly minor misunderstnding? Even brainless Olga thinks he's "strange".  Breslik's Kuda, Kuda is elegaic, as if he's looking forward to death for some reason.

Although the duel scene takes place in an anonymous hotel room, it's lit in surreal pale blue. You feel the frozen emotional wasteland and hear it in the music. Seeing it is largely irrelevant. Rigidity (Saretsky's rules) contrasted with confusion and fear. Onegin and Lensky's final duet is heart rending.What are these two feeling? Breslik paces the room, then removes his shirt and gestures towards his belt. It could be as innocent as Onegin's dancing with Olga. Onegin panics and shoots him dead.  Tchaikovsky's stage directions make it clear that Lensky hasn't a chance and doesn't fire, so the shooting itself is no big deal.

This is when Warlikowski's production becomes truly controversial. Second and Third Acts are bridged seamlessly, so Onegin visualizes dancers in the Overture, which merges into the ballroom scene where he confronts Tatiana and Gremin.  Bare chested dancers, wth leather gilets, jeans and cowboy hats, cavorting on the bed. Not quite Sugar Plum Fairies. Onegin is profoundly distraught, not just by Lensky's death but by what the dancers imply. Perhaps he wasn't so innocent when he danced with Olga. Perhaps he was jealous she was marrying Lensky?  He feels guilt, for many reasons. He holds the gun to his head, and it's gently removed by a chambermaid.  This is good, because she's the same woman who sang Fillipievna (Elena Zilio), who had no time for romantic extremes. Onegin's confused dream sequence leads him to the final confronation, with Tatiana and Gremin.

Onegin and Lensky aren't gay so much as men questioning their identity. Orientation isn't necessarily hard wired from birth, but can be suppressed and change. Warlikowski connects the bargains the women on the Larin estate make so they can survive in the real world to the compromises men made in those days when heterosexuality was enforced. Being gay was treason because it defied the "natural" order, again symbolized by the fruitfulness of the Larin estate. Onegin is an outsider, and doesn't do the marriage game, but he's not against society per se. It's society that doesn't make room for him. It's not invalid to read homosexuality into Eugene Onegin because it's a way of explaining Onegin's isolation. Besides, Tchaikovsky himself was homosexual, and there was no way he would have been able to deal with the topic expliciutly. While it's not good to read too much autiobiography into his setting of Pushkin's story, it's likely that he could see connections. Madam von Meck, for example, wrote letters rather than have flesh and blood relationships, and Tchaikovsky had a fake marriage that didn't fool those who knew where his real interests lay. Pushkin of course died in a duel about women, but Tchaikovsky was creating a new work of art.

For my review of the Kaspar Holten Eugene Onegin at the Royal Operas Housde, pleas see here. 

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