Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - Eugene Onegin
Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich, 2012
Pietari Inkinen, Krzysztof Warlikowski, Heike Grötzinger, Ekaterina Scherbachenko, Alisa Kolosova, Elena Zilio, Simon Keenlyside, Pavol Breslik, Ain Anger, Ulrich Reß
Live Internet Streaming, 25 March 2012
The manner in which elements of Eugene Onegin relate closely to the circumstances of Tchaikovsky’s own life have often been remarked upon, and it undoubtedly contributes to the deep emotional and romantic sweep of the opera, so it’s surprising that – to my knowledge at least – the unspoken subtext within the work hasn’t really been brought out explicitly before in any modern production.
That subtext is, of course, related to Tchaikovsky’s struggle with his homosexuality. At the same time that the composer was writing Eugene Onegin, he had himself started a correspondence with the patron of many of his works, Nadezhda von Meck, an intimate relationship that held a certain awkwardness since the two of them were reluctant to meet each other in person. In May 1877, Tchaikovsky also received a love letter from a pupil at the Moscow Conservatory, Antonina Milyukova. Believing that destiny was in some way playing a hand, and that marriage would help him deny his homosexuality, Tchaikovsky ill-advisedly married Milyukova in July 1877, and immediately regretted the decision. The marriage was a complete failure and led to a mental breakdown and attempted suicide on the part of the composer.
In the opera that Tchaikovsky was writing at the same time, Eugene Onegin, based on the verse novel by Alexander Pushkin, Onegin famously receives a gushing letter from a devoted admirer, Tatyana, a young, bookish, innocent, romantic girl living on a country estate who immediately falls in love with the handsome visitor introduced by their neighbour Lensky. Cruelly rejecting her declaration of love, Onegin claims that he’s not cut out for marriage, cannot bear the idea of being tied down when he is young and when there are so many other options to explore, certain that any marriage between them would inevitably become dull and routine.
There would have undoubtedly been some identification on the part of Tchaikovsky with this situation, which certainly at least contributes to the lush romanticism of the score, so it’s not too much of a stretch to consider that Onegin may well have similarly rejected the young girl because he is gay and that, at the end when he comes to regret his callous dismissal of Tatyana after a life of empty and purposeless abandon, it’s possible to see something of the composer’s own dilemma, hoping unrealistically and impossibly for the security of a marriage relationship that would be more acceptable to society.
Actually, having made the parallel and having watched the Bavarian State Opera’s attempt to put something similar across on the stage, I can see why there’s a reluctance to characterise Eugene Onegin as a gay man. It takes some nerve to update a classic work in this way, altering the sexual orientation of the main character in one of the most romantic works ever written, no matter how closely it mirrors the actual real-life circumstances of the composer. As a subtext, it’s certainly something interesting to keep in mind, but it’s a bit more difficult to make it work convincingly on the stage. Accordingly, there’s a sense that while the director might like to make more of the idea, there’s undoubtedly a need to tread carefully with the material at the same time. So in some respects, while there is a feeling that there is some holding back from taking these ideas too far, even what there is here in Krzysztof Warlikowski’s production is more than controversial enough.
Rather delightfully, the production is set in the 1970s, a period that is by no means arbitrary, coinciding with the age of growing sexual expression and liberty where coming out was more acceptable in a way that Tchaikovsky – or indeed Onegin – could never have done in their day. I’m not sure that this would have been the case in Russia in the seventies, but (quite the opposite of the recent De Nederlandse production by Stefan Herheim) there’s nothing here in this production that is culturally specific to Russia. So while the first act is by no means anything like the Larina country estate, it at least looks like a fairly well-off family anywhere in Europe during the seventies. I say delightful, and that’s because it’s a loving recreation of the decade in terms of design and colour, with vinyl chairs, bell bottom trousers, coloured leather armchairs and moon landings on the TV, the stage animated by disco lights and dancing queens.
It’s the idea of dancing queens however that is the most controversial aspect of Warlikowski’s production, which features Full Monty routines and shirtless males in cowboy hats and some even in bikinis, shuffling around through the famous Polonaise of the opera. I say shuffling, because it’s very tame stuff indeed, lacking the nerve and the verve to really make the production challenging, even if it is still more than enough to make traditional opera-goers very uncomfortable indeed. I don’t know what the Munich audience made of this or of Onegin’s kiss with his “close friend” Lensky, but I thought it was delicately handled within the context – the spat between the two men a rejection of Onegin’s advances, leading Lensky to throw down the challenge of a duel to defend his honour and reputation before a watching public.
If it wasn’t much to look at, and at times rather more static and all-purpose than one would like, the stage design suited the context setting well, looking most of the time like a 70s’ discotheque, but capable of being transformed reasonably effectively into a family living room or Tanya’s bedroom, allowing the first two acts to flow together without an interval. The duel between Onegin and Lensky takes place over a bed, which was something of a daring touch, but one that worked surprisingly well, principally due to the fine performances – in terms of both singing and acting – of Simon Keenlyside and Pavol Breslik. Keenlyside in particular carried the weight of Onegin’s inner struggle without appearing arrogant, adding to the tragedy of the outcome and his final breakdown. Ekaterina Scherbachenko perhaps didn’t carry the vocal strength or force of some of the best recent more mature Tatyanas (Renée Fleming, Krassimira Stoyanova), but she expressed the youthful innocence, confusion and mortification of her character much more convincingly, singing well and without mannerisms.
The idea of approaching Eugene Onegin from a gay perspective is a challenging one, as is setting it in the 1970s, and there were accordingly some inconsistencies in taking this approach and a static quality at times to the stage direction. The strength of the singing and dramatic performances however – notably from Keenlyside and Tatyana – and a good account of Tchaikovsky’s wonderful, heart-breaking score by the Bayerisches Staatsorchester under Pietari Inkinen, combined to brilliantly bring out the real strength of the work as well as the underlying subtext that undoubtedly contributes to its power and tragedy.