Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Salzburg Hit Onegin: More Miss Than Hit

Last year it seemed absolutely everyone at Salzburg was clamoring about director Andrea Breth’s monumental, updated production of “Eugene Onegin” and indeed, it was one of the most reviewed performances I’ve ever read of – I pored over some 30 reviews of the opening night – and nearly each seemed to be outpraising the previous in the heaping on of superlatives. I saw several clips while the show was still running and found what I saw enticing in the extreme. Well, now having watched the entire thing on DVD, twice I’m not as excited. Musically, I find it thrilling and eye opening, but dramatically it runs from red hot - like a fire poker in the eye – to luke warm.

There’s not a thing wrong with strong willed directors wanting to update and take a fresh look at an old classic – I WELCOME it - but when the will of the director blatantly ignores what is happening in the music imposing his or her will OVER what the director intends – then I have a problem. And I had problems here.

As terrific as Anna Samuil is in the Letter Scene, dramatically there was something lacking – something in need of tightening up – not on the heroine’s part, but on the director’s. The decision to not have her in pajamas or a nightgown proved, for me at least, a seemingly inconsequential, but ultimately glaring mistake. Breth has already made us aware this Tatyana is no shrinking violet – is, in fact, a strong willed (and slightly spoiled), young woman. But she’s still a girl and we need SOME vulnerability and there was next to none found here. Despite Samuil’s lovely shaded singing, magnificent lighting (car lights shining through the woods and windows) . . . despite incredible stage machinery rotating the sets showing Tatyana tearing through the house and out into the woods with what can only be described as “love fever,” we do not quite get (or at least I did not get) the sense that her epistle to Mr. O was particularly difficult, much less an all night vigil. Even having her remain in the same jeans for several days didn’t really convey that. There absolutely MUST be the element of the girl’s restlessness, of her insomnia, of night passing into day and it could have been as easily remedied by giving the gal a goddamned nightgown. Having her sit, pensive, noisily pecking away at a typewriter was for me a rather novel idea – just not a particularly good dramatic one. Just me I guess.

Earlier on, in one of the very best, liveliest,and most infectious peasant choruses in all of opera, the Larin servants, farmhands and neighbors perform it motionless as a chorus of automatons arranged properly in concert formation, faces stripped of any emotion as we watch the ghastly attired Madam Larina (her hair in curlers no less) frolicking with a pair of moppets (and nearly showing us her “business” in the process).

Peter Mattei (one of my favorite baritones) makes Onegin entirely unappealing, eliciting almost no sympathy for his plight. Onegin already IS somewhat unappealing, but to burden him now with a jaded, been-there-done-that playboy attitude misses Onegin’s point entirely. To Mattei’s credit he sounds terrific and follows, to the letter, his directress’s whims turning a melancholy, ennui-ridden young man into a mean-spirited, selfish and arrogant prick. Great.

Much was been made about Breth’s total transformation of Madame Larina and it’s true: few characters have morphed so entirely as the Larin girls’ mama. Instead of a kindly, pensive disillusioned, broken-dreamed, still elegant and intelligent woman we’re given a gaudy, shrewish, manipulative, self-obsessed cow. Wonderful.

I also had to scratch my head at the rambunctious, drunk fest that took the place of Tatyana’s name day celebration. Do people really find this that innovative? Does this add anything at all to the drama? I don’t think so.

And speaking of parties and celebrations, I will NOT apologize for finding the current directorial fad of removing the Third Act Polannaise to be a mistake. It is, in fact one of the most yawn-inducing clichés perpetuated upon the world of opera in the last decade. And there have been a lot. (Oddly, Carsen’s re-working of it for the Met, is the only example of where it worked. All others, including this one, fail miserably in my opinion). Breth here makes a little joke: Ha ha! I’m going out on a limb here, but in, say, 20 years or so some hot shot Austrian playwright making his operatic debut in Onegin will DARE to place the women into Empire gowns, the men in tails and fill the stage with gilded mirrors and crystal chandeliers as couples elegantly glide round the stage in sophisticated choreographed formations and the audience drop their jaws thinking “My, God! It’s almost as though this music was MADE for this!”

Sorry to spoil the party that everyone else enjoyed (I guess I’m just a bad guest!) but it felt to me that Breth was trying hard to make Onegin an intense, unsettling, brooding dark opera, a statement on class distinctions and society – as well as on boredom and honor. The problem is Tchaikovsky already did that and what I feel was chiefly achieved here was merely an accentuation of the ugliness of these characters . . . and unattractive costumes.

I was amazed by Martin Zehetgruber's elaborate sets – magnificent in every regard – and I would love to see another stab at this Onegin as despite how I may come off here, I think Breth has some very good ideas: the portrayal of this matriarchal society; the Larina disdain for peasants and workers; Madame Larina’s sheering the men like sheep; the contrast between the “old ways” still being hung to by Filipevna with the new world ideas of Madame L.; the disdain and boredom of the strong-willed Tatyana (having Filipevna die, unnoticed by the girl she did everything for, chilling . . . brilliant); the duel – heartbreaking; the blazing intensity of the final scene – there is plenty of good stuff here, I just found it all didn’t come together for me as for everyone else.

With so much attention lavished on the principal pair of non-lovers, the majority of characters almost fade which is a shame as all of the vocal performances here are outstanding, particularly Joseph Kaiser’s charmingly idealistic and more youthful sounding than usual, Lensky and Ferruccio Furlanetto’s glorious turn as Gremin.

Musically, Daniel Barenboim gives one of the most frenetic, violent readings of this score – make that THE most violent reading of the score anyone has probably ever heard – the tensions at times are almost unbearable. Unfortunately, regardless of what anybody else has written (maybe they were swept away by the passion) it was a sloppy, inelegant reading from the Vienna Philharmonic, with intonation problems, rifts between stage and pit, uneven entrances from the orchestra itself (a lot of this). It is thrilling, in that way surviving a ride on a high speed, broken rollercoaster is thrilling – but I’m pretty sure I’d never want to get on again.

There is clearly an audience for this – and I will try to come back to it, but I can think of a half dozen other “Onegins” on DVD (more if you add pirates) that are ultimately far more satisfying: particularly Graham Vick’s production for Glyndebourne; and Robert Carsen’s minimalist, brilliant production for the Metropolitan Opera.

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