Cowboy Onegin

Tchaikovsky – Yevgeny Onegin

Tatyana – Kristine Opolais
Olga – Yekaterina Sergeeva
Larina – Heike Grötzinger
Filippyevna – Larissa Diadkova
Lensky – Edgaras Montvidas
Yevgeny Onegin – Artur Rucinski
Captain – Leonard Bernad
Triquet – Kevin Conners
Zaretski – Rafal Siwek
Prince Gremin – Rafal Siwek

Chor der Bayerischen Staatsoper, Bayerisches Staatsorchester / Kirill Petrenko.
Stage director – Krzysztof Warlikowski

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich. Friday, January 10th, 2014

This was my fourth Yevgeny Onegin in the space of two years and the one problem with seeing the same piece relatively frequently is that comparisons inevitably form however much one does not necessarily wish to do so. This particular staging comes with a reputation for being the ‘Brokeback’ Onegin and indeed in many ways with sets and costumes reflecting the rural US of the 1960s it seems to inhabit a similar visual aesthetic to that celebrated movie. I have also heard that reaction to the staging has been somewhat polarized and I’m sure that those who go expecting a flavour of the Russian countryside and imperial St Petersburg will be disappointed. Yet by going with an open mind, it does actually prove to be a gripping evening in the theatre.

The premise that Warlikowski leads from is that Onegin – and to a lesser extent Lensky – are closeted and denying their sexuality. By doing this he may in fact be being completely true to a way that Tchaikovsky saw his work although the truth is we will never know. Moving the action to the rural US also results in the claustrophobic atmosphere of the village being evoked very well. The show opens with Tatyana & Olga singing their duet into microphones and line dancing. Onegin clearly has no patience for Tatyana’s reading – tearing up her book as she reads it – and he seems an absolute bore. Tatyana records her letter on a cassette tape and desperately holds on to Onegin as he rejects her. The name day party (here staged as a birthday) is where things start to get moving. Onegin is made to seem a bully – blowing out the candles on the cake, insisting on dancing with Olga until she dances with Tatyana. Interestingly Onegin dances with Lensky and I wonder whether I did in fact see them kiss before violently pulling apart. The duel scene is set in a bedroom, both men fully clothed trying to make sense of what they are about to do. Zaretski lays a gun on the pillow and Lensky starts to undress as if to have sex with Onegin when Onegin picks up the gun and shoots him dead. The Polonaise is set as the dance of semi-clothed cowboys while Onegin tries to block out the images from his mind. Later the cowboys appear in drag as if to taunt him. Zaretski dresses up and becomes Gremin and he seems to have a fetish for Tatyana’s legs. The final scene was absolutely gripping with Tatyana and Onegin initially making out until she realizes what she has done and slaps him and runs away. There’s a fair bit of description here I know but I have to say that it was an entirely convincing staging. The only part that I found questionable was that I didn’t quite get a sense of who the villagers were and what their relationship with Larina was. Perhaps there was something in the German surtitles but I didn’t follow them since I know the piece so well.

Vocally, the evening was a bit mixed. The stand-out performance came from Edgaras Montvidas as Lensky. With an ardent red-wine tone he seemed to be completely at home in the language. His ‘kuda, kuda?’ was devastating and included a stunning mezza voce. He seemed tireless and had a real warmth and sense of line to his singing that none of his cast mates could quite match. It started quite well with Larissa Diadkova’s wholly idiomatic Filippyevna and Heike Grötzinger’s fluent Larina. I was also struck by the rich and warm tones of Yekaterina Sergeeva’s lively Olga. Yet Kristine Opolais ultimately didn’t move me as I was hoping. She is a fabulous actress without a doubt but her chalky voice lacked colour and towards the end she was often south of the note. I enjoyed her attention to the text but I wanted more warmth and tonal glamour in her singing. The voice also seemed a size smaller than I remembered it when she sang Tosca at the Royal Opera and I wonder whether she was in fact unwell although no announcement was made. Artur Rucinski’s Onegin also lacked the warmth and legato of other interpreters. It’s an interesting voice with a strong steely tone but also lacking in variety and there seemed to be no effort to manipulate the line and make the notes mean more than a sequence of sounds. He is young and there is a decent voice there and I hope that he grows as an interpreter. I usually look forward to Monsieur Triquet’s interjections. Sadly tonight, I couldn’t understand a word although the couplets were beautifully sung.

Kirill Petrenko led his forces in a frustratingly variable reading. The chorus was frequently behind the beat and the men in particular lacked blend. The opening chorus and the waltz were horribly out of sync between pit and stage. The Polonaise for example was paced well but the waltz was heavy and hesitant. Several sections dragged horribly and there was some sour intonation in the strings on occasion. The final scene just failed to soar in the way that it should and perhaps in turn this exemplified what was wrong with the performance. The lack of phrasing and concentrating on creating a musical line may well have come from the pit. At the same time, there was real sensitivity in the way that Lensky’s aria was accompanied for example.

This was indeed a frustrating evening. Tchaikovsky might have written his work for students but it is a very difficult piece to pull off. While I really enjoyed the staging, Montvidas’ Lensky and some of the supporting roles, I’m afraid the other principals and the conducting disappointed. I do hope that the production is revived next season with a different cast, I would very much like to see it again.


The Nationaltheater in Munich. Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

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