Sunday 11 June 2017

A re-invention too far? Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin at Latvian National Opera

Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin - Raimonds Bramanis (Lensky) (Photo: Agnese Zeltina (c) Latvian National Opera and Ballet)
Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin - Raimonds Bramanis (Lensky) (Photo: Agnese Zeltina (c) Latvian National Opera and Ballet)
Tchaikvosky Eugene Onegin; Janis Apeinis, Maija Kovalevska, Raimonds Bramanis, dir: Rezija Kalnina, cond: Ainars Rubikis; Latvian National Opera
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on June 10 2017
Star rating: 3.0

A modern dress production which radically updates the opera

The curtain rose at Riga Opera House on a strikingly designed modern scene, all perspex and metal with stylised trees. Four women in modern, yet Russian-inflected dress were tussling over piles of clothes, watched at a distance by an older man. It was clear that one of the older women was profoundly upset. Eventually the chorus appeared, dressed in grey cassock-like garments. It is not clear who they are, they collect up the strewn garments and draw the four women into a dance.

Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin - Janis Apeinis (Onegin) (Photo: Agnese Zeltina (c) Latvian National Opera and Ballet)
Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin - Janis Apeinis (Onegin)
(Photo: Agnese Zeltina (c) Latvian National Opera and Ballet)
This was the opening of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin at the Riga Opera Festival on 9 June 2017. Rezija Kalnina's production (which debuted at Latvian National Opera in December 2016) was designed by Michael Kramenko with costumes by Inese Ozola (creator of the fashion label Amoralle which is notable for its nightgowns and lingerie), lighting by Sergei Skornetski, choreography by Ilze Zirna, and video by Ieva Balode.

Onegin was sung by Janis Apeinis, Tatyana by Maija Kovalevska, Lensky by Raimonds Bramanis, Olga by Irina Shishkova, Larina by Kristine Zadovska, Filippyevna by Andzella Goba, Gremin by Romans Polisadovs and Triquet by Andris Kipluks. The conductor was Ainars Rubikis who will become Music Director of the Komische Opera in Berlin in 2018.

Most successful productions of Tchaikovsky's lyrical scenes have a very clear sense of place, it is obvious who the characters are. This does not need the opera to be set in the period of the original Pushkin story, but it helps. (Tchaikovsky said in one of his letters, 'the staging does not have to be lavish but it music be strictly in keeping with the period'). By the end of the first act of this production, I still had no clear idea who these people were. Rezija Kalnina seemed to have created the family from hell as all four women seemed desperate for Tatyana to wed Onegin, no wonder he was put off. The act was full of unusual elements of dramaturgy which jarred with Tchaikovsky's original concept, for example Olga made an appearance at the end of Act One and made contact with Onegin.

Frustrated, I read the synopsis in the first interval. This seemed to be a free fantasia on characters based on Pushkin, take this description of part of the action in the fourth scene:
'Onegin hears people gossiping about him and Tatyana; he decides to put an end to it and take revenge on his friend, Vladimir Lensky, for putting him in this awkward situation. He decides to do something to open Lensky's eyes and show him just what kind of woman Olga is. But Lensky loses all self-control in his jealousy and wants to attack Olga, but Onegin tries to stop him. The fiendish pimp Triquet arrives and pretends to auction Tatyana off in a fiancée market'.

Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin - (Photo: Agnese Zeltina (c) Latvian National Opera and Ballet)
Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin - Scene 3
(Photo: Agnese Zeltina (c) Latvian National Opera and Ballet)
Re-inventing an opera can work (Silent Opera's recent production Vixen being a case in point, see my review) but here Kalnina failed to establish a dramatic and emotional rationale. So moments like Lensky's aria in the fifth scene seemed to come out of nowhere. And often there was too much going on, too many competing emotions on stage. Kalnina seemed to have a dislike of solo scenes, Tatyana's letter scene included appearances from Larina, Olga and Filippyevna (all in attention-grabbing costumes), and all four women appeared during Lensky's aria along with Lensky and Olga as children. In Act Three, Tatyana's mother was present during Tatyana's moving solo at the beginning of the final scene.

The production did indeed look very good with striking costumes and quite a lot of naked flesh, there was even a fashion show during the Act Three polonaise. A number of the costumes seemed to be channelling the work of Alexander McQueen, though some seemed to have been designed for models in mind and on real opera singers they looked cumbersome.

It is difficult to judge the piece musically because the dramaturgical aims were different those of a regular production. As a result it was good in parts but with little sense of connections.

Maija Kovalevska made a poised Tatyana. Lacking girlishness in Act One, her letter scene was finely sung but without the youthful sense of passionate impulsiveness which makes the piece work. In Act Three she really came into her own and the final scene had its moving moments. Irina Shishkova played the new version of Olga to a tee, poised and glamorous with a lively command of the music

Janis Apeinis as Onegin had an impressive physical presence and a fine baritone voice which he used intelligently. His Onegin was robust and vigorous, lacking the element of poetic mystery. The final scene with Tatyana was well sung and vigorous, but I missed a sense of passionate desperation.

Raimonds Bramanis as Lensky sang with passionate intensity in the duel scene solo and duet with Onegin (sung over a game of cards) but earlier in the opera this Lensky seemed somewhat lost in the competing melee of emotions on stage. Romans Polisadovs was a striking looking Prince Gremin, in a wheel chair, and his account of Gremin's aria had a nice confidence to it. Polisadovs' performance was popular with the audience, but I found his vibrato a little on the intrusive side.

Kristine Zadovska made the new concept of Larina work, and there were moments in Act One when I thought she might have designs on Onegin herself. With Andzella Goba's Filippyevna things were less clear, and she seemed much more the older female relative (Larina's sister?) than elderly retainer, especially as much of the letter scene dialogue with Tatyana seemed put on for effect.
Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin - Andris Kipluks (Triquet) - (Photo: Agnese Zeltina (c) Latvian National Opera and Ballet)
Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin - Andris Kipluks (Triquet)
(Photo: Agnese Zeltina (c) Latvian National Opera and Ballet)

Andris Kipluk entered with a will into the new concept of Triquet, complete with glamorous outfit and high heels. Karlis Sarzants popped up both as Zaretzky and the Company Commander. We never did find out who the man wearing little but a tattoo-effect body stocking and deer-skull mask was, but he made a striking addition to the stage images.

There was minimal dancing, with no involvement of a separate ballet troupe. Ieva Balode's butterfly themed videos were used for the scene changes, striking but I was unclear of their relevance to the dramaturgy.

Conductor Ainars Rubikis has recently been announced as the new musical director of the Komische Opera in Berlin. He drew a careful account of the opera from the orchestra, encouraging the singers to give a far more full-blooded and robust account of the music than is sometimes usual. Efficient and well controlled rather than loved, I missed a sense of the passionate involvement in the shaping of the score.

Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin - Romans Polisadovs (Gremin) (Photo: Agnese Zeltina (c) Latvian National Opera and Ballet)

This was a large and elaborate production, clearly some investment for the Latvian National Opera. The director Rezija Kalnina comes from a theatrical background (both acting and directing). I am clear as to whether her version of the story was an attempt to give the women character's more power, if it was then this seemed at odds with a production style which objectified women by using so many scantily clad female models.

One cynical thought, with such a showcase for Amoralle's wares, particularly in the Act Three fashion parade, I hope that the company helped support the production.

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