Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Herheim's delicious ripple of Eugene Onegin in Amsterdam

Eugene Onegin, De Nederlandse Opera in Amsterdam, June 26 2011

Stefan Herheim ..... director
Mariss Jansons ..... conductor

Olga Savova ..... Madame Larina
Krassimira Stoyanova ..... Tatyana
Elena Maximova ..... Olga
Nina Romanova ..... Filippyevna
Andrej Dunaev ..... Lensky
Bo Skovhus ..... Onegin    
Mikhail Petrenko ..... Prince Gremin
Guy de Mey ..... Monsieur Triquet
 Peter Arink ..... Zaretski
Richard Prada ..... Zapevalo

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Koor van De Nederlandse Opera [Martin Wright]

And so I was able to see the new production of Eugene Onegin in Amsterdam.

De Nederlandse Opera is one of the European top opera houses, brilliantly run by Pierre Audi and his team. Although I am not crazy about Audi as an opera producer, I very much admire his openness to many facets of theatrical modernity, his ability to mix up the program and make it exciting for as broad the public as possible. The Amsterdammer trust him and they follow him even when more audacious productions are staged at their pleasantly organized opera house. It gets extra-interesting when you know that the quality level of the Dutch orchestra is exceptionally high. Now you hopefully understand why I like come back to this theater.

This production is certainly one of the best we had in Europe this year, not only because Stefan Herheim once again showed his extraordinary talent to produce operas, but also because of its remarkable musical quality. In the pit there was no other but Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra --the world's best orchestra, according to many-- conducted by his awesomeness, Mariss Jansons. Mariss grew up in the USSR and Pushkin is a part of his cultural foundations. Tchaikovsky too. His conducting of Onegin is not innovative in a sense of what Vassily Petrenko did in Paris last winter, but it is a passionate reading of the score in which a particular attention was devoted to the strings highlighting romantic moments of the drama, without ever adding too much effects to make it sound sugar-sweet. Especially impressive is the way how the volume is carefully tuned to make the magic of voices weaving through the orchestra work. Herheim and Jansons clearly worked together to prepare this show and Jansons not seldom chooses the tempi to suit the musicality of Herheim's stage action.

Krassimira Stoyanova is a splendid singer, particularly classy in her renditions of the heroines from operas by Verdi, sings here her first Tatyana. Her voice is voluminous, beautiful, healthy and expressive enough (classy is a right word to describe her singing). She's maybe too mature for the character, but in a Herheim's reshuffled and time dilated story that did not matter at all. Au contraire!
I admired Andrej Dunaev's Lensky  a few years back in Paris in a terrific production by Dmitri Tcherniakov. Here his Lensky is as luminous and  pronounces his verses as if all the beauty of the Russian language was condensed in his character. Mikhail Petrenko is a superb Gremin. His bass is personal, often atypical to attract your curiosity, but his singing is shaped  to fit the character with no parasitic pathos that often plagues basses singing this role. Misha is a typical example of the modern opera singers [what's so musically special running though the Petrenko tree?! Kirill, Vassily, Misha...] Bo Skovhus is scenically very good, his singing goes crescendo and he brings his best towards the end of the show. Other smaller roles are wonderfully sung too.

Pushkin, like no one else, had a singular ability to capture the romanticism and melancholy of the Russian soul and to put it in words. Rare are Russians who will tell you they don't recognize a bit of themselves in Pushkin's poems or plays. His work is timeless and it equally fascinated people at the times of Tzars, in the Soviet era, and in the post-communist time. That's what Herheim recognized straight away and structured his show about Russia living between its traditional past, Soviet era, and its modern capitalism today. With that as a ground idea he sticks to the Puskin's story... well, sort of ;)  His deconstructionist spirit couldn't resist and he actually reshuffled the story. It actually starts with a reception at the Gremin's house, with a bunch of snooty couples arriving to be a part of an important social event. Onegin is coming alone. At one point Tatyana and Gremin (a modern day oligarch) arrive to greet their invités -- which is when Onegin recognizes Tatyana, stares at her. They exchange the glances and that was enough to provoke the emotional storm in both of them. They each spend that night sleepless. While Gremin is asleep, Tatyana is recollecting her memories and goes back to the times when she was a young girl, in love with Onegin. On the other end of the stage we also see Onegin fantasizing about Tatyana --she's the woman he wants, and she could also be his ticket back to the high class-- and ready to spill out his soul in a gripping letter to her. So the two letter scenes in this productions are merged into one. Great singing by Stoyanova!

The times are also mixed up and the ball is sometimes the special moment for young daughters of the rich Russian oligarchs, and sometimes a reference to the times when Tatyana and Olga were courted by Onegin and Lensky. The rift between Lensky and Onegin is more complex in this production, as Herheim wanted to give it a social-political platform too -- so important for Russia. Lensky is in love with Olga, who in turn is flattered by the Onegin's attention. When Lensky realizes that Onegin is seducing Olga and she responds to that, his frustration is not only transformed to anger against Onegin, but anger against the class of rich people to which Onegin belongs (don't you love it?!) Lensky in fact becomes a communist, and his frustration grows into limitless ambition. Larina is a symbol of old traditional Russia of Romanovs, and at the moment when Lensky turns to capture the bear (a symbol of Russia), she stands and protects it.  

I found a detail with the red book very interesting too. When the young Tatyana meets Onegin for the first time, she carries a red book that for her represents a world of passions and love fantasies. That red book later lands into the hands of frustrated Lensky who then raise it as if it was the Communist Manifesto -- a symbol of his fantasies and his ambitions to accomplish what is needed to seduce the girls like Olga. This is a typical "herheimism": in Lohengrin Ortrud was a wise and clever woman who saw the crook in Lohengrin, and here Lensky is not a romantic victim but a frustrated communist despot.

The time goes by, Russia is in the claws of communists... a pretty festive star suddenly burnt to became a symbol of suffering of the Russian people. Although on two sides, Onegin still wants to reach to his former friend. There is one great scene in which Lensky and Onegin --separated by the glassy doors (two sides, two worlds)-- march towards each other and  almost touch the glass, but then they both jump back as electrified. The gap that separates them now is just too big. There is more to it: they march towards the glass and each sees his own reflection mixed up with the image of his former friend -- friend that is part of him he actually hates.

Onegin will nevertheless try to shake hands with Lensky but the other will refuse. Instead, one of the Lensky's soldiers will give a gun to both of them that will lead to the famous duel scene. To avoid too much pathos, the moment when Onegin kills Lensky and says "Dead!" --Was he too afraid of what might happen to him after that or he was sad that he's killed his old friend?-- the soldiers repeat after him "Dead." and then just military salute the death of their commander: that's their duty [to salute], they don't feel sorry for the death of a despot. That scene even made some people in the crowd laugh that practically removed the theatrically dangerous bad taste solemnity following the Lensky's death. 

The ambivalence of today's Russia to the Soviet era is particularly well highlighted in this production: while on one hand the Russians suffered under the communist regime, the symbols of the Soviet glory remained a source of pride for many. And so we see a bunch of Russian athletes, gymnasts, acrobats, ballet dancers, figure skaters, the patriarch and the orthodox priests, followed by astronauts... Note the orthodox priests: they are obviously not directly related to the Soviet era but are a source of Russian pride that survived communism.

There is an interesting scene in which the artists come to perform in front of the rich folks in today's Russia, and before they leave Gremin approaches one of them to hand her an envelop with a check -- that's how the artists live today.

In the last part of the show we return to the party from the beginning of the show. Onegin is visibly upset, drunk, untidy, and begs Tatyana to talk to him. Tatyana's reaction is here skilfully made ambiguous: (i) she's rich and cold and her past means little to her and so Onegin as well, (ii) she was seeking revenge and actually enjoys this moment, (iii) she's just being pragmatic and uses moment to face Onegin and expel him from her heart, to then continue enjoying her life with Gremin,  her lover and her protector.

In the end Onegin is humiliated. He pulls the trigger to shoot at his own reflection. That has at least 5 meanings that I will leave you with -- and is a perfect way to close this fantastic show.

I saw this Onegin on Mezzo-TV before going to Amsterdam. The experience is quite different, both obviously interesting, but the real musical treat is truly felt when you are in auditorium. Props to Mezzo for filming the show cleverly so that even those who saw the show at the Nederlandse Opera will find it interesting and catch on the numerous details they might have missed during the live show.  This is one extra reason to see this recording more than once. Every move of the actors, every change of scenery is made on purpose. The stage action is totally in synch with music, which is one of the most striking features of Herheim's shows. Grand grand show! And yes, Herheim is a genius!

I believe they will release a DVD of this production, which will make the number of astounding  DVD-ized productions of this opera to three: (1) Andrea Breth production [with Anna Samuil and Peter Mattei] filmed in Salzburg, (2) Dmitri Tcherniakov production [with Tatiana Monogarova and Andrey Dunaev] filmed in Paris. In any case this one is to be treasured.

Several production photos [©DNO]:

My CC pics:


the trailer

and the full letter scene:


  1. Yay! I was looking forward to reading your review on this. I downloaded and watched the Mezzo TV broadcast yesterday and loved it. There is a commentary by Laura in Intermezzo, though, that sounds a little disturbing:

    "I'm hearing that this production won't be released on DVD because Jansons has vetoed it... in today's pre-broadcast special on Dutch TV, he said some very disapproving things about the production (which he apparently severely dislikes)."

  2. From what I've heard Jansons say that's not true. Jansons prefers flat, old, traditional productions, but he was amazed by Herheim's musicality.

    I've got a film with interviews with Jansons and Herheim on my computer... hopefully will find a way to convert it to some format compatible with YT.

    Herheim is obviously a genius. He elevated opera producing to a level of art.


  3. I absolutely agree with you about Herheim, and it would be a shame if a music master like Jansons didn't share his artistic vision, but this happens all the time... I mean, we love the theatre and the theatricality within opera productions like these, but this point of view is not a consensus among conductors or even traditionalist opera directors. I remember the Maazel/Zeffirelli case at Corriere della Sera three years ago with a bad taste in my mouth.


  4. Hi gslanfranchi,

    Ah that's an old story and I believe it is a good tension that eventually results in brilliant productions. The conductors are the happiest if there is some decor on the stage, the singers standing still and sing their arias to complement the orchestral part. Good directors instead are immersed in telling the story, often overlooking the musical difficulties. So the tension is there by definition! I think it's healthy for the creative process.

    An alternative route is to have it Muti-way and be like a despot: hiring and firing the directors who do/don't abide by his concept of hos a given opera should be produced.

    Jansons is the "old guard" and it's normal that he pulls it his way, but the bottom line is that he is a brilliant conductor and that's what matters the most.

    I was told he was very difficult when conducting the extraordinary Martin Kusej production of Lady Macbeth of Mzentsk. But the result was extraordinary!

    Remember what Andrew was talking about the historic Parsifal in Brussels and Haenchen obstinately refusing some of the Castellucci's ideas. And yet the result was sensational!

    I think that tension makes the both sides making some concessions which make them ejected from their comfort zone, and they have to react fast to adapt to a new situation. That's what helps their creativity -- that little change, that unplanned stuff that happens along the way...