Upon Watching Eugen Onegin

The big, rotating stage of the Grosse Festspielhaus is pretty cool, especially with the Gladiator-esque wheat fields. My first opera presentation for Jane's Opera History class is Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin and the Wiener Philharmoniker's 2007 production DVD gave me a good experience. These were my pros and cons:

  1. Joseph Kaiser as Lensky. His was the one genuine character of the whole production, both because of this character in the story, and the way he gave himself to the part. I especially loved his love aria to Olga in Act 1 (I caught the shift from I love you (polite) я люблю вас to I love you (familiar) я люблю тебе. Go language acquisition!) His death aria at the end of Act 2 was particularly moving. But then he dies...
  2. Again, gotta love a big rotating stage. It made the theatrical world seem quite big and labyrinthine. It was like being lost in a big house.
Cons: (there are more of them)
  1. A dour sense of ironic hopelessness. This is a Pushkin verse novel. I know because I read the translation by Charles Johnston. If the translation has any of the spirit of the original, Pushkin's writing is so many things: it's biting and terse and flippant and earnest and easily sidetracked and hilarious and sad... It's rich! Immensely rich! This production only took the single aspect of existential, depressive malaise and left out any of the other nuances. Very one dimensional. Undoubtedly it must be very difficult to stage anything by Pushkin. It's so complicated and so simple.
  2. The conductor Daniel Barenboim sat while conducting. I realize he's getting on in years, but this is Tchaikovsky! Regardless, the orchestra did great which makes you wonder how necessary the conductor is.
  3. Social commentary. This goes along with Con #2. The opera opens with Madame Larnia morosely shaving the heads of her male serfs with a clipper. When the peasants sing a dancing song, no one dances, but stands in the wheat fields as though they are turned to stone by the depravity of their lives. The party at the Larins' is so empty and pathetic. The ball at St. Petersburg is awful. We get it: humanity is pretty off on its priorities.
My last observation on this opera is my amazement at Tchaikovsky's choice of subject and of what he demands of the audience. The plot is quite fragmented to start with. Tchaikovsky fragments it more into "lyrical scenes." What he counts on for it to avoid the Ruslan and Ludmila syndrome is having an audience who is completely familiar with the original poem. As soon as the operatic Onegin says the words “Мой дядя...” (“My uncle...”), which appears surreptitiously in the middle of Act 1, an audience who knew Pushkin would have immediately had the first stanza running through their heads. It’s almost like a textual Leitmotif. In the same way that Stravinsky’s Les Noces requires exceptional knowledge of Russian peasant wedding customs, this opera counts on a common culture to fill in any blanks. It totally sticks it to his detractors who complained of his lack of "Russianness."

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