Repressed desire: Yevgeny Onegin at the Bayerische Staatsoper

Tchaikovsky – Yevgeny Onegin

Tatyana – Anna Netrebko

Olga – Alisa Kolosova

Larina – Heike Grötzinger

Filippyevna – Elena Zilio

Lensky – Pavol Breslik

Yevgeny Onegin – Mariusz Kwiecień

Captain – Evgenij Kachurovsky

Triquet – Ulrich Reß

Zaretski – Günther Groissböck

Prince Gremin – Günther Groissböck

Chor der Bayerischen Staatsoper, Bayerisches Staatsorchester / Leo Hussain.

Stage director – Krzysztof Warlikowski

Bayerische Staatsoper, Nationaltheater, Munich.  Sunday, July 26th, 2015.

I first saw Krzysztof Warlikowski’s staging of Yevgeny Onegin last year and I wrote at length about it at the time.  It intrigued me greatly and while there will always be those who miss imperial St Petersburg, I felt that he had something important to say and in doing so, may well have been interpreting something close to the feelings Tchaikovsky might have had when writing the piece.  For Warlikowski, rather than Onegin seeing Tatyana in later life as his only chance of happiness, here, we see Lensky as Onegin’s true love and a relationship that, due to internalized homophobia, can never quite become what it is meant to be.

Pavol Breslik, Anna Netrebko, Alisa Kolosova, Mariusz Kwiecień. Photo: © Wilfried Hösl
Pavol Breslik, Anna Netrebko, Alisa Kolosova, Mariusz Kwiecień. Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

Indeed, there are signs of the closeness of Onegin’s and Lensky’s relationship in Pushkin’s original verse novel.

But Lensky, having no desire
For marriage bonds or wedding bell,
Had cordial hopes that he’d acquire
The chance to know Onegin well.
And so they met – like wave with mountain,
Like verse with prose, like flame with fountain:
Their natures distant and apart.
At first their differences of heart
Made meetings dull at one another’s;
But then their friendship grew, and soon
They’d meet on horse each afternoon,
And in the end were close as brothers.
Alexander Pushkin (translated James E Falen) Yevgeny Onegin. Oxford, England, Oxford University Press, 1990, p. 41.

The idea of a burgeoning relationship between Onegin and Lensky clearly has its roots in a reading of the original verse novel even if it was not necessarily what Pushkin had in mind.  As in much of Warlikowski’s work, this staging was based in the aesthetic of a movie, in this case Brokeback Mountain, and echoes of the struggle of the relationship between Jack and Ennis are here seen between Onegin and Lensky.  And yet, it’s Onegin who compromises their only chance at happiness as he shoots Lensky just before they have sex.  Onegin’s internal struggle at being taunted by images of semi-clothed muscular cowboys in the polonaise was here thrillingly incarnated by Mariusz Kwiecień, his attempted search for peace through suicide absolutely devastating to watch.  This was a story of Lensky and Onegin’s acceptance of their true nature and I left the theatre deeply moved by the work of two outstanding singing actors.  It was most regrettable therefore that in a staging that reflects on the shattering effects of internalized homophobia and suicide that several highly ignorant audience members chose to boo the cowboy polonaise.  Far be it from me to speculate whether those who booed were homophobic or just wanted to see some pretty dresses instead, but it’s hard not to come to the conclusion of the former.

Günther Groissböck, Mariusz Kwiecień, Pavol Breslik. Photo: © Wilfried Hösl
Günther Groissböck, Mariusz Kwiecień, Pavol Breslik. Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

The one issue with Warlikowski’s vision is where this leaves Tatyana and here I felt that this evening was much more problematic.  When I saw it last year, with Krīstine Opolais it seemed more convincing dramatically, tonight it felt that Anna Netrebko was performing in a different staging to everyone else.  It felt less that we were watching a living, breathing manifestation of a character, as we saw with Onegin and Lensky, but rather a celebrity incarnating a role.  Both Kwiecień and Pavol Breslik’s Lensky have previously performed in this production and in the context of an opera festival with limited rehearsal and only two performances, it is perhaps unfair to expect Netrebko to give us a fully lived-in portrayal that was sensitive to this staging.  However, that is precisely what Kwiecień and Breslik gave us and they were truly superb.

Mariusz Kwiecień, Opernballett der Bayerischen Staatsoper.  Photo: © Wilfried Hösl
Mariusz Kwiecień, Opernballett der Bayerischen Staatsoper. Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

Perhaps as a result of working on Donizetti with his Barcelona Malatesta last month, Kwiecień gave us a truly bel canto Onegin, even more so than on the previous occasions I have seen him in the role.  The line was effortlessly produced, with the richness of tone that is his trademark and a fantastic attention to the text.  The beautifully judged diminuendo and wonderfully sustained pianissimo as he gave Tatyana his impressions of the letter was but one example of the wealth of detail he found in the role.  He also had the strength for the confrontation with Tatyana in the final scene, singing with thrilling abandon.  The acting, as always with this incomparable singer-actor, was exhilarating, completely charting the journey from repressed desire to that unbearable feeling of watching someone see his only chance of happiness disappear through his own doing and his desperation to try and make something happen with Tatyana as if by doing so would negate his sexuality.

Mariusz Kwiecień, Günther Groissböck, Pavol Breslik. Photo: © Wilfried Hösl
Mariusz Kwiecień, Günther Groissböck, Pavol Breslik. Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

Only 24 hours following his performance as Edgardo on this very stage, Breslik sounded absolutely and completely fresh as Lensky.  There is a handsomeness to his tone that is ideal for the role.  His isn’t the biggest voice in the world but he uses it with so much intelligence, never compromising the beauty of the tone, even in the most declamatory passages, that he really is a model in how a singer really works with his instrument.  His wonderful aria ‘kuda, kuda?’ was sung with the ideal sense of regret and wistfulness that it requires and throughout, again perhaps as a result of working on Lucia, his singing displayed a command of the line that was truly bel canto.  The chemistry between him and Kwiecień’s Onegin was unmistakable.

Anna Netrebko. Photo: © Wilfried Hösl
Anna Netrebko. Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

I’m not convinced that Tatyana is the best use of Netrebko’s undeniably plush soprano.  Certainly, as with many interpreters of the role, she convinced more as Gremina than Tatyana.  Her native pronunciation of the text was a pleasure to hear and the voice truly is a beautiful instrument.  It has filled out over the years and gained an additional roundness.  Intonation higher up in the voice below mezzo-forte had a tendency to head south and the descending sequences in the latter part of the letter scene were not quite immaculately tuned.  She gamely entered into the spirit of the opening scene with its line dancing but overall I never quite believed in her character in the way I believed in Alisa Kolosova’s Olga for example.

Anna Netrebko, Mariusz Kwiecień, Alisa Kolosova, Pavol Breslik. Photo: © Wilfried Hösl
Anna Netrebko, Mariusz Kwiecień, Alisa Kolosova, Pavol Breslik. Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

Kolosova offered us a wonderfully, rich and rounded mezzo, ideally matched to the music.  Elena Zilio’s veteran Filippyevna certainly sounded mature, virtually all of the role sung in an earthy chest voice.  Heike Grötzinger repeated her luxurious Larina and Ulrich Reß was a game Triquet, if lacking in the ultimate clarity with the text.  Günther Groissböck was a physically imposing Gremin.  Not yet 40 in a voice type that usually blooms around 50, it felt that the role didn’t quite sit well in the voice, the leaps in the registers lacking somewhat in support.  It’s a beautifully grainy and inky sound and he is certainly a singer whose development I will be following with attention.

Anna Netrebko, Heike Grötzinger, Chor der Bayerischen Staatsoper. Photo: © Wilfried Hösl
Anna Netrebko, Heike Grötzinger, Chor der Bayerischen Staatsoper. Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

Leo Hussain obtained some splendid playing from the Staatsorchester – for once the intonation in the lower strings was excellent when it so often isn’t.  Tempi were slightly on the slow side and the dances remained somewhat earthbound.  It felt that he was luxuriating in Tchaikovsky’s glorious sound world whereas, personally, I would have preferred it to have been kept moving.  What he did achieve though was tight ensemble from the entire cast, something that wasn’t the case when I saw the production last year.

Mariusz Kwiecień, Opernballett der Bayerischen Staatsoper. Photo: © Wilfried Hösl
Mariusz Kwiecień, Opernballett der Bayerischen Staatsoper. Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

In a way, tonight’s performance exemplified the debate of opera as music theatre.  We were given a highly intelligent and convincing staging that perhaps remained true to the feelings of the composer when writing the work – although we will never know exactly what was going through his mind.  Above all we were given two central performances of such raw, emotional power that it was impossible not to be moved.  I very much hope that we will have the opportunity to see this pairing again very soon.

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9 comments

  1. Thank you very much for the review.
    I am still somewhat surprised they let Netrebko in this production. Warli has a certain vision when it comes to selecting singers/actors, and I don’t think she quite fits that vision. Although, nothing can ruin this amazing “Onegin”. I also saw it last year with Rucinski & Montvidas, but I can only imagine how incredible it would be with Mariusz and Pavol. Those two! The sheer tension during the ball! Dancing together! The duel!

  2. You don’t have to be homofobic to dislike this production. You only need to hate when a director goes against the work, i.e. thinks he more smart than a composer & librettist. Reading libretto, only in an alternate universe can you believe that in the last act, Onegin is not in love with Tatiana! He declares it to himself, guys! And if he loves this WOMAN, the entire homosexual structure of Warlikowski falls apart. It’s a gimmick. The homosexual issues should be examined in works which are suited to it.

  3. “Far be it from me to speculate whether those who booed were homophobic or just wanted to see some pretty dresses instead, but it’s hard not to come to the conclusion of the former.” Yes, and we’re all dimwits who think opera is a fashion show. You don’t have to be homophobic to dislike this production, you just need to hate it when a director blatantly goes against the work. The third act has no sense in this production. You have to have a very particular reading skills to miss in libretto that Onegin loves Tatiana; he even declares it – to himself! If Onegin loves Tatiana as a WOMAN, entire construction of Warlikowski’s approach falls apart. Homosexual issues should be examined in works that are suited to it. When Warlikowski forces himself upon an opera which is about many things, but clearly not about homosexuality, it looks awfully like a rape. Or in this day and age we don’t believe any more that men can be friends?

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment, twice. I maintain that Warlikowski’s reading is based on a reading of the text both the libretto and Pushkin’s original even if it’s not a reading you might agree with. The best directors are those who take you on a journey and convince the viewer that his or her vision is valid. Warlikowski does this for me to the extent that I can’t stop thinking about this staging and the superlative performances given by the cast. If he hasn’t managed to take you on that same journey, you’re perfectly entitled to your opinion and to discuss it in a rational and respectful way.

    • A piece of art may have as many readings as it has readers, each shaped by their own preferences, experiences and beliefs. Furthermore, artists have been interpreting and reinterpreting other artists’ works for millenia. Just because you read Eugene Onegin in a certain way doesn’t mean that others can’t experience it differently.

      As for your comment that so-called “homosexual issues” must only be explored in a limited number of works dealing explicitly with it, I completely disagree. Just like anyone anywhere may be homosexual, any character in any piece may be so too – or bisexual, or anything.

      You may interpret Onegin’s declarations of love for Tatyana at face value – and you’re entitled to it, and there are enough productions of Eugene Onegin catering to this reading. But there’s no reason why other productions can’t interpret it as Onegin trying to convince himself that he really is straight. Neither reading is superior to the other – they’re just different interpretations.

  4. The homoeroticism – romantic friendship, one might call it, in coy nineteenth-century terms – of the relationship between Onegin and Lensky is so overt in the opera that subtext barely seems the right word. It was also brought out, albeit more subtly, in Steven Pimlott’s much underrated Royal Opera production. Of course, a production need not concentrate upon it, but only the most wilful reading would rule out such an approach. As for Tatiana, where I think Warlikowski misses a trick is to see her as a gay man’s (Tchaikovsky’s and perhaps Onegin’s) projection of his idea of a woman, devoted to Onegin, as much as a character in her own right. I’d love to see a production which explored that idea. Given the baleful situation in Putin’s Russia, the sooner, the better.

  5. Actually, I’ve always found it difficult to believe that Onegin really was in love with Tatyana at the end — he seems more to be grasping for a solution to his aimlessness and confusion, whatever the root of that confusion may be. Here the love of a conveniently unavailable woman suddenly seems the answer to his anomie, with the added potential of wreaking havoc, something he has already done earlier in the story. This false solution theory works with or without a homosexual subtext.

    Is this the closest Tchaikovsky comes to hinting at a homoerotic element in his operas?

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