Friday 16 August 2019

EIF 2019 - Eugene Onegin at the Festival Theatre, or, Is it raining? I hadn't noticed.

It's a comment on the limitations on EIF finances these days that this, one of only two staged operas at the 2019 Festival, only arrives at the end of the second week. It received a rapturous reception from the audience, but from where I was sitting I was less convinced.

This was a return visit for Komische Oper and director Barry Kosky. This pairing was last seen at the Festival with their disappointing Magic Flute in 2015, with Kosky having been a fairly frequent visitor since the Mills era. I've also seen several Kosky opera productions in London. He has a considerable reputation, but I still can't see why, and this production did not change my mind. This evening was, however, an improvement on my only previous live encounter with this work - Holten and Ticciati's flawed recent version at Covent Garden (though I was interested on re-reading my blog on that performance that I liked that production more than I'd remembered).

The best aspect of the evening was certainly Ainars Rubikis and the Komische Oper Orchestra's account of the score. Rubikis understands, as Ticciati failed to, that this is a score that needs romantic passion, grand sweep to bring it to life. He also has that feeling for dramatic forward momentum which I think is crucial to really good opera performance but which too often conductors are short on. The orchestra responded with energy to Rubikis's direction and there were many lovely sections and nicely characterised solos. That said Rubikis did suffer from a couple of problems which have also affected other visiting opera companies to this venue in recent Augusts - he didn't always keep pit and stage in harmony, and, from the Upper Circle, he sometimes allowed orchestra to swamp singers. It seems clear that this is really quite a difficult venue for visitors to get these things right in - though I don't remember it happening in this kind of way with visitors in the McMaster era. Obviously rehearsal time must always be short but I wonder if visitors are doing enough in that time to check balance around the auditorium.

I was less wowed by the singing, though glancing through other reviews this morning I am very much in a minority on this. I heard the first cast (most roles are doubled so the show can play three consecutive nights). Asmik Grigorian (Tatyana) acts the role well, mostly managing to transcend the problematic aspects of the staging to be a compelling physical presence on stage. Vocally she has a lot of power and there were moments of beauty and feeling. But there are roughnesses to the voice lower down and sometimes harshness to the top notes. Gunter Papendell's Onegin was less satisfactory. At times he found the needed heroic quality to the top notes, but, particularly in the final scene, he often failed to come over the orchestra, and in places there was a bit of a bark to his delivery. There was nicely characterised work from Karolina Gumos (Olga) and Oleksiy Palchykov (Lensky). Dmitri Ivaschenko brought an appropriately rich bass to the role of Gremin, but, although there was some scattered applause after his aria for me he didn't find the same depth of feeling as Peter Rose in the Covent Garden production. Finally, one of the most satisfying moments of the whole evening, not least because the production was relatively focused during it, was the opening duet between Liliana Nikiteanu (Larina) and Margarita Nekrasova (Filipyevna). Taken all in all it was an evening of solid not outstanding singing.

And so to the production. This starts reasonably enough in a forest glade, but difficulties soon creep in. It early becomes apparent that the centre of this glade is on a revolve - and the show soon develops one of the worst cases of revolveitis I've seen for some time. It is ineffective and irritating. The chorus interjections are rather oddly handled - they don't look as if they've come from harvesting in the opening scene, and the movement is distractingly busy at times when the focus ought to be on the leads. I got rather preoccupied at one point by trying to keep the score of the badminton match. I also didn't think that the meeting of Tatyana and Onegin was terribly well handled - it doesn't fit with the description of it we receive in Act 3, and there's a typically annoying moment when either Filipyevna or Larina has to ask where Tatyana is despite the fact she's standing practically in front of them.

Things become more unsatisfactory in the Letter Scene. It becomes apparent that we aren't going to leave the glade. Instead Kosky traps Tatyana in a narrow spotlight front centre stage. He also has her overdo the tortured emotional gesturing and pacing. There are two problems with this - less would have been more on the movement but, more seriously, I didn't really believe that she was trapped in this spotlight for any reason other than this was the size of the spotlight. I'm sure Kosky was going for the idea of the girl trapped in her own emotional distress, but for me it was ineffective. A similar issue applies to the decision to stage virtually the whole drama in the glade - if it was more convincingly brought home that the lovers whole lives have been defined by that one moment, that they have in a sense never left it then it might make more sense - but too much of the action is staged as if it is happening now for that sense of psychological entrapment to be created. The result was I kept wondering what people were doing there.

Things go more seriously downhill in Act 3. The three walls of a grand drawing room have been erected drawing the interval. Unfortunately they have been plunked down in the middle of the glade. Caught half way between two places the setting doesn't convince as either. It is a further irritant that most of the drawing room scene takes place in a semi darkness in which, at least from the Upper Circle, it is impossible to make out faces. Why opera directors have developed a liking for this escapes me. But what really renders the drawing room silly is that Kosky then decides to dismantle it in the orchestral interlude between Act 3 Scenes 1 and 2. It's obviously a bit fiddly to take apart and requires a certain amount of care to get the large panels off stage - indeed one group ran into difficulties. I'm afraid I just found the whole spectacle hilarious. I also could not see why, having stuck to the glade up to then, Kosky bothered to put up these walls for just one scene. And then, back in the glade, the evening concludes by channeling the final scene of Four Weddings and a Funeral - apparently we need to have the frustrated lovers in pouring rain that we may be convinced that they are in emotional torment. Technically clever, but like the drawing room walls I thought unnecessary and ineffective.

Having seen this work twice I conclude that it is tricky to get right. The action is rather disjointed, I'm not sure the libretto stands up to close reading, and Onegin this time struck me as rather an ass with whom it is difficult to feel much sympathy (or indeed quite to understand why Tatyana is so taken with him). There were sections of this performance when I was moved, but usually if I closed my eyes. A solid but not outstanding evening.

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