Thursday, 19 February 2015

Eugene Onegin at the Barbican, or, Who Are All These People?

I'm beginning to have the slight suspicion that Eugene Onegin is one of those stories which is not for me, as this is the second version of it I've seen which left me cold, though it may not have been helped by the fact I was labouring under a nasty cold to start with.

The first problem was the rather baffling concept, the purpose of which was no clearer to me at the end than at the beginning. Rimas Tuminas has decided to set the adaptation in a dance studio in which various men (whose reasons for being there are also opaque) decide to start reciting Pushkin's poem. The effect of this peculiar arrangement was to put a hurdle between me and a real emotional engagement with the narrative from the beginning because I couldn't work out who they were and I didn't really believe in them.

This effect is compounded a lot of the time by the way the central characters of the story are directed. I suppose the point of the unnatural movement associated with the Olga/Lensky flirtation is an argument that we should not really be taking it seriously but this consequently makes it difficult to care when Lensky is shot. Why Olga walks around with an accordian strapped to her chest for most of the evening was beyond me. Much the most interesting aspect of the direction is the suggestion of doubling of Onegin – there appeared to me to be both a young and old Onegin – except that in the programme the older one is listed as a retired hussar (Vladimir Simonov who took this role was the finest individual performer of the evening). Presumably my lack of in depth knowledge of the text is letting me down here, though I'll repeat a basic opinion that a staging should be comprehensible without recourse to text or programme notes. The doubling has potential, but it is only intermittently followed through. There are other places when something deeper emerges – oddly (as was also the case in the recent Royal Opera production of the Tchaikovsky version) among the most emotionally convincing came in Tatyana's interactions with the Prince – but it isn't sustained through the gruelling three plus hours of this show.

Meanwhile, around the central narrative, there is a great deal of odd extra business going on – mainly the province of the nine female members of the ballet school class who form a rather bizarre chorus – are they additional sisters of Tatyana and Olga, servants of the house, unexplained hangers on?  Some of this delivery and movement can be beautiful but it didn't form a convincing whole, and I couldn't get past my basic puzzlement as to what they were all doing there to begin with. There were also the usual moments of complete bafflement – the highlight here being the white rabbit who suddenly appears during the ensemble's interminable journey to Moscow.

Last summer in Edinburgh I was wowed by another Russian epic The War, which packed real emotional punch and was visually stunning. The poster for this production (of Tatyana on a swing) had led me to hope for a similar visual richness, but I'm afraid this was unrealised. For much of the show the stage is fairly bare apart from the large mirror (which added little) at the back and the dance rail. In the second half there are some visually striking moments – the snow fall (though its use the second time has correspondingly less magic) and the corps de ballet on the swings (but the question of why they're there again undermines it). The poetry of the text came across clearly but the staging often seemed to occupy a different disconnected world.

There were evidently some in the audience who thought it was a stunning evening. For me it committed what I have previously recorded as one of my major theatrical crimes – particularly during the second half I was neither amused nor moved, but bored. If you have not obtained a ticket for this show I wouldn't worry. If you have, alcoholic refreshment in the interval is advisable.

3 comments:

  1. Good - just as I feared from the Vakhtangov's incomprehensible, overloaded Uncle Vanya. Apart from the mannered acting, what especially enraged me there was the non-stop music, like constant melodrama. Interested to know how pervasive it was there.

    By the way, I was in Inverness for Runnicles' Sibelius Seventh and, perhaps because I was sitting very close, didn't find it too smooth. Thought he handled all the changes and hit the climaxes just right - something for me Rattle and Vanska can't do. Was rapped over the knuckles by a lady who'd been to the talk for bigging up DR at the expense of SR, but - much as I admire him in some things - naturalness in Sibelius 3, 6 and 7 is something he can't seem to manage.

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  2. @David - belated thanks for sharing these thoughts. What's really surprised me is the number of people praising the show as visually stunning when it seems to me just no comparison with things like The War (EIF 2014) or Theatre de Soleil (was it EIF 2012). Interested in your comments on Sibelius perfs, though managed to hear none of them myself!

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  3. David, I certainly preferred the Sibelius to Rattle's take in London a few weeks ago. Rattle got so lost in the details that there was no flow at all, which particularly hurt in the third but a problem everywhere (and the less said about his view you can run 6 directly into 7 the better). Agree with respect to the gear changes and certainly it flowed well but there was just a bit of rawness which seemed to be missing for me, but I probably need to take another listen on the iPlayer.

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