Sunday, March 25, 2007

Tchaikowsky in the abstract

I recommend the European Union Opera production of Tchaikowsky’s opera Eugene Onegin (1998, featuring Vladimir Glushchak in the title role). If the DVD is in your local library, check it out.

Eugene (Russian Yevgeny) Onegin is a self-absorbed young jerk who thinks that having good looks, intelligence, and wealth means that the rest of the world is supposed to entertain him. At age 22, he is bored with his neighbors, lesser mortals that they are; he is bored with his estate, and itching for some excitement.

The first act describes how an innocent neighbor, Tatyana, becomes infatuated with Onegin and, like the heroines in her favorite romantic novels, she writes him a very passionate letter. Her room is full of romantic novels; they cover the windowsill, the floor, and the table.

Real life doesn’t work like a novel.

Lucky for her, Onegin either doesn’t think seducing her would be enough of a challenge; or else he has just enough honor not to take advantage of her. The scene in which he responds to her letter opens with the romantic books sunken into the floor, still visible; but now Tatyana comes out of the vault of books with a feeling of dread at how Onegin might respond to her letter. He gives her a long speech, saying he’s not the marrying kind, she’s not sophisticated, they’d get bored with each other after a while, and says she’ll fall in love with somebody else sooner or later. He warns her not to be so candid in letters; somebody else might take advantage of her inexperience.

A short time later, Tatyana’s mother hosts a ball in honor of Tatyana’s 18th birthday. Onegin’s friend Lensky, engaged to Tatyana’s sister Olga, drags Onegin along to the party. Onegin decides it’s Lensky’s fault that he’s bored, so he flirts outrageously with Olga. Lensky’s had a little too much to drink, and gets angry. Olga doesn’t know why he’s so upset, and Onegin doesn’t have the good sense to see that his little adventure is getting out of hand. He’s too stiff-necked to back down—other people’s reactions to him are their fault, right? Lensky repudiates Olga and challenges Onegin to a duel, and Onegin kills Lensky, his only friend.

Act III, four years later: Onegin has been running away from his guilt, all over Europe. He has no career, no family, no real purpose. He comes to a reception at the elderly Prince Gremin’s house, and discovers Tatyana is now Princess Gremina. Prince Gremin, sings a truly beautiful aria, telling of his love for Tatyana. He loves her for all the reasons Onegin rejected her: she’s unaffected and innocent, not like the phonies and sycophants he finds himself surrounded by in Society. She has grown into the role of Princess, she is good to Gremin, and she has given him his youth back.

Onegin decides that now that he’s ready to love Tatyana, she should discard her aged husband and come to live with him. She acknowledges her love for Onegin but tells him that she has been a faithful wife to Gremin and isn’t about to go back on her vows. Her duty to Gremin outweighs her love for Onegin, and she leaves him in an agony of emotional torment. Which he richly deserves

The staging is rather abstract but it works. The “furniture” in Tatyana’s house is very simple, covered with white cotton. A garden party is represented by red and yellow kites floating above the bare stage, which slants downward to reveal her romantic books below stage, almost as though Tatyana’s library has become a crypt. The birthday party scene is plain white furniture draped with white cotton, with a few romantic novels strewn among the birthday presents. A white screen shows the dancing behind the refreshment area, where the action takes place. The only color is the red in Tatyana’s gown, the yellow in Olga’s, the blue in her mother’s gown, hints of color in the guests’ clothing, and a huge bunch of hydrangeas on the table.

Monsieur Triquet, French guest of one of Tatyana’s neighbors, gets a delightful little aria. His impossibly round bald head wreathed with grey ringlets that look pasted on, his Louis XIV brocade jacket flapping like butterfly wings, he sings verses written in French in honor of Tatyana’s birthday. He is comically vain and dramatic, bur he is earnest and everybody loves him.

Prince Gremin’s reception hall is a series of black, wavy columns with a red carpet down the middle. The guests, representative of High Society, wear black; and have heavily painted faces and bizarre, intricate coifs, emphasizing the artificiality that Gremin has come to hate. Tatyana is the only woman on stage who looks entirely human, and Prince Gremin wears a silvery grey suit. This production’s Gremin looks a healthy forty years old.

The scene in which Onegin professes love to Tatyana brings back the crypt of books in front of a plain black curtain. He has awoken Tatyana’s old romantic feelings. Onegin’s black overcoat makes a great stage prop in this scene. Tatyana keeps handing it to him telling him to leave. When he declares that she should leave her husband, that he (Onegin) was made to love and protect her, he drapes his overcoat around her shoulders. When she tells him farewell, she throws the overcoat off. When she rejects him, she runs off upstage, and when he tries to follow her, two mirrors appear and block his path.

Sidney J. Harris describes a jerk as “someone who cannot see himself as others do….He is incapable of looking in a mirror of his soul and shuddering at what he sees there.” Does Onegin shudder at his reflection and realize his own folly? The opera doesn’t answer that question.

The production is moving, and beautifully sung. Enjoy!

Mrs James

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