Monday, 27 February 2012

Onegin in Bratislava: nothing to be done

Yevgeny Onegin
Slovak National Theatre, 25/02/2012

Onegin | Pavol Remenár
Tatiana | Adriana Kohútková
Lensky | Aleš Briscein
Olga | Monika Fabianová
Gremin | Gustáv Beláček
Larina | Eva Šeniglová
Monsieur Triquet | Ivan Ožvát

Conductor | Jaroslav Kyzlink
Director | Peter Konwitschny

Co-production with the Oper Leipzig (Leipzig premiere 1995, Bratislava premiere 2005)

With carefully rehearsed Personenregie this Onegin was, again, a Slovak National Theatre revival Peter Konwitschny would recognize, and yet, for all its interesting characterization and signature Musik-inszenieren, he didn’t bundle this and his nuanced understanding of Werktreue together with the same dialectical rigour his Butterfly Konzept achieved.

Cast and chorus mill around the stage as the orchestra tunes up, their incessant bustling as draining as the social void it fills. Everybody is wearing a coat or jacket, establishing a symbolic thread which runs throughout the opera: no place to call home, aimless wandering, no understanding of shelter or the comfort of stability. Konwitschny raises a dead birch in the first scene so it’s all very Waiting for Godot – and just like Lucky at the end of his monologue a random trenchcoated figure lets a bottle loose from his hands and a blood-chilling scream from his lips before collapsing to the ground. His silencing indeed makes him one of the lucky ones, but the point here is denial of agency – and to what degree that might extend to Onegin and Tatiana. Konwitschny uses this episode to suggest, not uncompellingly, that powerful and unpleasant social forces find their expression throughout Onegin's score. The orchestra starts playing immediately after the man’s collapse, and we know how it goes: starting, hesitating, pausing, restarting and pausing (twice), exerting to find a different way, stabilizing with the cadential material which previously stalled the music. Konwitschny recognizes, as Adorno did, that techniques of interruption and tonal instability can be Janus-like and ultimately self-reinforcing, and so the structural pattern of the prelude is shown to hold sway over Tatiana in the letter scene, its preordained interruption and circularity imposed rather than symbolic of autonomous conflicted impulses. To talk of self-determination in the content and timing of what Tatiana writes is to neglect the half of what Chaikovsky is communicating, so Konwitschny seems to argue.

This is an interesting and not altogether unproblematic set of assumptions, but of more immediate concern was that Konwitschny only engaged with them sporadically. In the opening scene the harpist plays her part onstage, though of course five minutes into the opera she disappeared, with Tatiana and Olga powerless to make her stay. More could have been made of this diegetic moment and though Konwitschny writes that the silent harp – which remained onstage for the rest of the opera – functions as a symbol, I wasn’t convinced. It seemed rather discarded.

The rest of Act I unfolded with mostly conventional ideas: Olga teases Tatiana for her tastes in romantic fiction, Onegin is at first a reluctant guest but produces champagne from his coat pocket in no time (Konwitschny writes that he finds this ‘wirklich schön’!), Onegin and Tatiana have a private moment upstage during Lensky’s arioso. To the side of the proscenium arch there is a pile of books arranged like a playpen, which speaks – forgive the pun – volumes, and though Tatiana dives into these with some regularity, the spatial and symbolic implications of her den become clear to her, with no small degree of seriousness, at the beginning of the letter scene. Using the wrapping from Onegin’s champagne bottle she writes, not quite in control, and the more she vocalizes her feelings the harder the scene is to read. Oppressive social forces can be represented in any number of heavy-handed ways but Konwitschny leaves these invisible, intangible, undefined. All that is clear at this moment is that Tatiana wises up to some extent but at the same time is denied something greater than self-realization. And what awareness and wherewithal she now possesses is sufficiently fragile that Onegin is capable of shattering her moment by crashing with ladies of dubious repute hanging on his arms. From this point on the situation is simply left to simmer and there’s nothing to frighten the traditionalists about the rejection.

Konwitschny places the interval after the fourth scene and that we segue directly from Onegin/Tatiana to the name day party worked effectively: Tatiana is silent/silenced for a unusually long time after the rejection and Konwitschny has her visibly traumatized and ignored or abused by her guests for the entire scene. The champagne wrapping mysteriously reappears only to be snatched from her hands and kicked aside like some piece of trash by M. Triquet. The extraordinary audacity of that which she tried and failed to do was made fully graspable for a modern audience, though for her not to frolic joyously around the stage (amazingly I have seen this in a traditional production) was truer to the spirit of Pushkin too. For the duel the crowd calmly surround the two men, and though you don’t see anything Lensky could only have been shot at point blank range. Quite why Onegin should fall to pieces so spectacularly after something so coolly premeditated jarred for a moment, but when Konwitschny, writing that the ‘music of the Polonaise is too good for us to turn it into a ballet scene’, makes it all about Onegin’s realization of what he has done, he unleashes some raw and disquieting Personenregie: Onegin frantically removes the jackets piled on the body and screams in anguish at the height of the A section. (Konwitschny doesn’t really make a point with clothes but their symbolic discarding is clear enough). In the B section he read Lensky’s notebook and learns, too late, of his friend’s sensitivity, and for A’s return he desperately attempts to reanimate the corpse with a ballroom dance.

Pavol Remenár, Lensky not the singer I saw

In Act III Konwitschny steps back and mediates everything through the characters. Tatiana and Gremin start out in a stage left box, he no heartless oligarch, but rather so big-hearted it escapes his notice that he is suffocating Tatiana with his bear hugs. Again, clothes appear to be a symbol, this time for Gremin’s possessive streak – his massive overcoat comes off and drowns Tatiana, making plain that he is her home now, for better or worse. In Act II Tatiana had hidden herself in the stage curtain, though its womb-like protection is not the place of safety she imagines it to be (see image above); in this act she gets to draw the curtain fully on her tormentors, leaving herself, the books, an apron that extends across the pit, and the acute problem of Onegin. From here on out it’s somewhat disappointingly routine: she slowly draws the letter from her bosom, he heavy pets her, she rips up the letter, he lets his hands wander some more. At the end Konwitschny puts the orchestra pit between them and there are some poignant outstretched hands similar to Herheim’s letter scene. It was all effective and moving, but the transition from exposing the social forces behind the tragedy to focusing on the characters left a number of loose ends.

Adriana Kohútková was in good if not outstanding voice, her Tatiana memorable mostly for the way she has the part down – she grew up fast in the letter scene, going from kicking back her legs and wiping her nose with her arm to a credibly adolescent mix of longing, conviction and self-doubt. Rejection weighed heavily, and was written poignantly all over Kohútková’s face when Onegin, trying to be kind, ditches Olga for a slow dance with Tatiana at the party. For singing, there were some lovely floaty top notes but aside from the very end and a seat-pinning top B she lacked power at the top of her range. Her warm middle has much to recommend it, with plenty of tone and focused vibrato.

Onegin is good-humoured when he’s introduced to Tatiana, in scene 3 rather a sleazeball, for the rejection itself detached and gentlemanly, blank in the duel, driven oddly rapidly to a nervous breakdown by Lensky’s death, indecently desperate with Tatiana in the final scene – and nothing much in the way of an arc to connect these moods. Often relegated to the sidelines, he goes unnoticed most of the time too. Pavol Remenár’s mellow baritone sounded good the entire way through and in a different production I might have paid more attention to him.

Aleš Briscein’s light-voiced Lensky had much lyrical beauty and his phrases were exquisitely turned. I’m not sure that ‘Kuda, kuda’ should sound quite so refined and polite, almost as if he were inviting Olga to walk all over him, but for what it was there was nothing wrong with the singing. Monika Fabianová also sounded good but her Olga verged on Musetta territory. Gustáv Beláček’s phrasing was questionable (see below for extenuating circumstances) and he rather scooped his top notes, but I was inclined to overlook that for his non-stentorian Gremin and the healthier parts of this range, which in his aria were as dark and glutinous as a vat of caviar.

I’m informed that Jaroslav Kyzlink is a competent conductor who just has a lot on his plate at the moment, but excuses notwithstanding the conducting in this performance was a disaster. Tempi were never stable but always much slower than was fair for the singers, who all deserve credit simply for getting to the end in one piece. It must be awful to get to the end of a long phrase and have to carry on sustaining breath with no idea when the final downbeat will fall, and indeed Remenár soon rebelled, dramatically upping the pace in his first act aria and dragging the orchestra along with him. Kohútková wasn’t as forward, but despite having the technique to cope her letter scene was rambling and dreary, as robbed of direction as the playing was of expression (we couldn’t even have an attempt at full and searing strings at the beginning, just something anaemic and indecisive). Moments of foul intonation were strewn liberally throughout the score, and with Kyzlink failing to cue the players we missed three of my favourite oboe and bassoon solos.

Images, some shots of Remenár excepted, aren’t of the cast I saw.

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating account of the performance. We were there too, but being much less au fait with the piece didn't realise the conducting errors or other problems. We enjoyed it very much, probably on a much more superficial level. A great read though!